My Stuff

https://umass-my.sharepoint.com/:f:/g/personal/rwolff_umass_edu/EkxJV79tnlBDol82i7bXs7gBAUHadkylrmLgWbXv2nYq_A?e=UcbbW0

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, May 30, 2021

TECHNOLOGY

I taught my first class in September, 1955 and with a few breaks, for the Army and one thing and another, I have been at it ever since. For the first 65 years I met my students face-to-face in a classroom. I could see them, they could see me, after a bit I got to know them and after a bit they got to know me. From time to time I used modern technological devices to assist me in my teaching, like printed books and mimeographed handout sheets, but operationally speaking the basic activity in which I was engaged was not fundamentally different from what Plato did in the Groves of Academe.

 

Thirteen years ago, I took a giant step forward into the 21st century and started blogging. Some years after that, I even went so far as to record more than 30 hours of lectures on a wide variety of subjects which I posted on YouTube. Strange as it may seem, when I began blogging and putting lectures on YouTube I did not at first give much thought to the fact that my relationship to my audience had fundamentally and irretrievably changed.

 

The technology brought with it striking changes. Interpreting somewhat the statistical data provided by Google, I estimate that my daily blog posts reach a worldwide audience of considerably more than 1000 people. Only once in my life have I actually addressed that many people in person – at the first meeting of the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City, where I was one of four commentators on a speech by the great Polish communist and scholar Isaac Deutscher.

 

I think in my long career I must have taught the Critique of Pure Reason twelve or thirteen times, reaching in those classes perhaps 175 students or a few more. But the first of my nine lectures on Kant posted on YouTube has been viewed 164,000 times, according to YouTube, and even the ninth and last lecture in the series has been viewed more than 13,000 times (which, it is probably reasonable to assume, means that more than 10,000 people have watched the entire series.) It would take me 50 teaching careers to reach that many students in person!

 

And yet, and yet. It really is not the same. I have from time to time made a fuss about people who post anonymous comments on this blog, and in the last several days there has been an extended thread of comments about this matter, but to tell the truth, it is not the presence of abusive anonymati that upsets me the most. It is quite simply the fact that I cannot see you, you cannot see me, we cannot talk to one another in the way that I did with my students for my entire adult lifetime.

 

Now one might say, “Why are you so disturbed? It does not upset you in the same way to publish a book that is read by you know not whom, you know not where, and even in languages you yourself cannot read.” Which is true but somehow does not alleviate my discomfort.

 

When the pandemic hit, I was teaching a graduate course on the thought of Karl Marx at UNC Chapel Hill and after the first nine meetings I was forced to switch over to zoom. Even though I knew the students and had spent time with them personally in class, I hated that and dream of going back to the good old way.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

NIGHT SWEATS

Let me take just a moment to give voice to my inner fears. Let us suppose that Trump seeks the nomination in 2024 (whether in prison or not, it makes no real difference – Debs actually ran for the presidency while in jail on the Socialist ticket and got several million votes.) If he does, I think it quite likely that he will get the nomination because I cannot imagine the eight or ten or fifteen other Republicans vying for the nomination agreeing to back one candidate against Trump. Suppose Biden runs again and the result is roughly the same – an enormous popular victory for Biden and a modest electoral college victory in which there are several important states which Biden wins by relatively modest margins. Suppose, as seems likely in that case, that enough of the closest states in the Biden column have Republican legislatures.

 

In this set of circumstances, which do not strike me as terribly unlikely, suppose that the Republican legislatures simply vote to send slates of Trump electors to the Congress. Suppose that slates of Biden electors are also sent from those states. Suppose that on January 6, 2024 the House and Senate meet and imagine at this point that the Democrats control the Senate, having picked up one or two seats in 2022 and the Republicans control the House. If the House and Senate do not agree on whom to seat as president, the matter, I believe, goes to the House with each state delegation voting as a unit.

 

Suppose that under this set of assumptions, Trump, who has clearly lost the election, is declared the winner by a majority of the House state delegations voting as units. In short, suppose the Republicans in conformity with the specifications of the Constitution, steal the election. I simply cannot believe that California, New York, and the other Democratic states will accept this result. Suppose the Supreme Court refuses to consider the matter on the legally correct grounds that it is for the Congress to settle the issue.

 

At this point, American democracy, such as it is and as it has been at least during my lifetime, is over. What would the outcome be? I honestly do not know. Whom would the Army obey? Whom would the National Guard obey? Whom would the District of Columbia police and the capital police obey?

 

This keeps me up at night.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF

If anyone is interested in my views about the work of Arendt, you can click on the link to box.net at the top of the blog and look on the second page for something called "Notes for a Materialist Analysis."

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

REFLECTIONS ON THE MODERN AGE IN WHICH THE NAME OF MARX APPEARS ONLY IN THE OPENING SENTENCE

Let us set Karl Marx to one side and try to get some sense of the state of things as we see them here in the United States in the third decade of the 21st century. I do not have a coherent story to tell about this so these will be somewhat scattered remarks but perhaps they can prompt an interesting discussion.

 

I am someone whose personal memories go back more than 70 years, and certain things strike me as I look around me at the United States. The first, not surprisingly, is the very great inequality in income and the much greater inequality in wealth. Thinking of America as a collection of households rather than individuals, I see a country in which median household income is something less than $70,000 a year, which means that half of all households take in less than that. But there are a number of very wealthy households which each year earn the equivalent of a millennium of the median. Think about that for a moment and just try to get your mind around it. There are households that in one year earn as much as the median household would earn in a thousand years. Wealth of course is much more unequally distributed than that. One could without difficulty but together a foursome for bridge whose collective wealth was greater than the accumulated holdings of one half of all the people in the United States.

 

As Thomas Piketty showed us in his very useful book, the progressive diminution of the inequality in the distribution of wealth which took place during the years when I was a young man was not a harbinger of things to come but a 30 year anomaly caused in large part by the effects of a worldwide depression followed by a world war. The structure of inequality that existed in the late 19th century and in the very earliest decades of the 20th century has now reasserted itself in the early years of the 21st century with no sign of doing anything but getting worse.  Some critics of Piketty took him to task for lumping together private home ownership with productive resources under the heading of “wealth.” There is some merit in that criticism and if you drop out private homeownership from your calculations the inequality in the distribution of wealth is of course enormously greater.

 

Ownership of capital is, by and large, in private hands but there are several extremely important exceptions that complicate the economic picture. Think for a moment about four major spheres of activity in the United States: education, medicine, the military, and local, state, and federal government. Elementary and secondary education in America is almost entirely public, not private, despite the best efforts of Betsy DeVos. Tertiary education is a more complicated picture in America, although not in the same way in other advanced capitalist economies, but in the years after the second world war the public higher education sector grew much more rapidly than the private sector and continues to dominate the university and college world despite efforts now to undermine public control of higher education. The military, which is an enormous institutional structure absorbing a great deal of social resources, is also almost entirely public, once again despite the best efforts of the brother of Betsy DeVos. Finally government is no longer, if it ever was, merely the Executive Committee of the ruling class and has become an extremely large part of the economy.

 

Despite these exceptions, it remains true that productive capital is for the most part privately owned, so that the collective wealth of the country cannot easily or significantly be put to uses that are collectively decided upon.

 

With the perspective of more than seven decades, I find several things about those years extremely striking. The first is the contrast between the steady increase in the productivity of labor and the stagnation of real wages for a large portion of the economically active part of the population. The second is the important change in the proportion of the population of working age. At one end, the almost sevenfold increase in the number of people with four-year college degrees means that for at least a third of young people the age at which they enter the labor force full time has been put off for four years or more. A corresponding change has taken place in the proportion of the population who are beyond working years. Much of the increase in life expectancy over the past century is a result of a dramatic reduction in infant mortality, but if you compare life expectancy at age 65 now with what it was when I was young you will find that those reaching the end of their work life can now on average expect to live twice as long as they could back then. The Social Security program was instituted at the time when most people living long enough to get Social Security benefits could expect to get them for only a few years. Now they can expect 15 years or more of Social Security checks.

 

Thus even during periods of full employment, a smaller proportion of Americans is supporting a larger proportion of the young and the old. This fact makes the grotesque inequality of income and wealth even more of a pressing problem. An extraordinary story in the New York Times last Sunday summarized population data that point to a worldwide decline in fertility with profound implications for the economic organization of 21st century countries, capitalist or otherwise. The statistic that stunned me was a projection that between now and 2100, the population of China will in all likelihood drop from 1.4 billion to 700 million!

 

To bring to a conclusion these scattered observations and reflections, let me say just a word about what the pandemic here in the United States has taught us about labor in the 21st century. When things were going well, before the pandemic hit, it was easy and comfortable and terribly advanced to talk about the fact that everyone these days was in the information business, working on a computer or cell phone, not with a shovel or harvester. Then the pandemic hit and all of a sudden everybody was talking about “essential workers” whom society could not afford to send home for several months to keep themselves safe. Doctors and nurses of course were considered essential workers, but so too were bus drivers and grocery store clerks and meatpacking workers and farmers and long-haul truckers and everyone else who makes it possible for all of us to survive day by day. Needless to say, the touching celebrations of these essential workers did not actually reach so far as to increase their wages any. But it was a helpful reminder that even in this postindustrial information age, we really do need the labor of the men and women produce our food, clothing, and shelter. Happily, as the pandemic comes to an end, we can go back to pretending that those people do not exist and we can go on paying them miserable wages so that Jeff Bezos can buy MGM.

THIS IS WHY I BLOG

What a grand series of comments to my brief description of the course I want to teach at UNC Chapel Hill. I am especially grateful to Ahmed Fares.  That is what a philosophy blog ought to look like! I became familiar with the work of Al-Ghazali and Al-Farabi through the courses I took at Harvard almost 70 years ago with the great medievalist Harry Austryn Wolfson, but I really was not familiar with the details that Ahmed Fares lays out in his very useful comments. Hume, of course, would have been familiar with the work of the 17th century philosopher Malebranche, whose doctrine, referred to as Occasionalism, is clearly influenced by the medieval Arabic tradition.

 

I am reminded of something Hannah Arendt once said to me – a story I am sure I have told before. In the late 1960s I had given a talk at a Columbia University gathering in which I laid into John Stuart Mill pretty vigorously. After the talk, Arendt came up to say hello. She was pretty obviously not thrilled with my talk, but she politely asked me what I was working on then. I replied that I was writing a book on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. “Ah,” she replied, her face breaking into a broad smile, “it is always more pleasant to spend time with Kant!”

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

BACK IN THE SADDLE (??)

Next spring I will be teaching an advanced undergraduate course at UNC Chapel Hill (if enough students sign up – the minimum is 10.) The course will be called Four Short Works of Philosophy and the idea is simply to have some fun.  The four books range in length from 82 pages to 107 pages in the editions I shall be using and the first three of them, at any rate, are among my all-time favorites. They are Plato's GORGIAS, Hume's DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION, and Kierkegaard's PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS.  The fourth -- hem hem -- is IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM.


I think it should be a hoot.

Monday, May 24, 2021

I GIVE UP

 Oh well.

ONE SMALL POINT OF CLARIFICATION

The questions raised by a number of commentators concerning the great differences between 21st-century capitalism and mid-19th century capitalism deserve extended answers, which I am not yet ready to attempt, but there is one tiny point I should like to clarify since it is, I think, one of the wittiest comments in Capital. It concerns the subject of transubstantiation.

 

In the Roman Catholic ritual of the mass the wafer and the wine are miraculously converted into the body and blood of Christ by God when the priest raises them and ask for a blessing. The taste of the wafer and the wine, their look and smell, do not change. In other words the accidents remain the same, to use the classical philosophical terminology, but the substance of the wafer and the wine are changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. Hence this ritual miracle is called transubstantiation. This is the central and most important miracle of Christianity and it is a miracle repeated every time that a priest anywhere in any church in the world celebrates a mass.

 

In the marketplace capitalists exchange commodities – linen for wheat, beef for iron, wool for copper. When two commodities, let us say a bushel of wheat and a ton of iron, exchange with one another the accidents of the commodities change – a capitalist who had iron before now has wheat and the look, the feel, the solidity, and all the other accidents of what he possesses have changed. But according to the classical political economists, at least in the simple case for which Ricardo’s labor theory of value works, the quantity of labor embodied in the two commodities is unchanged, for equals have exchanged for equals. This embodied labor, this abstract socially necessary labor as Marx would put it, is the substance of commodities, it is what the capitalist cares about in his effort to make a fair and equal exchange in the market.

 

The classical political economists believed that what takes place in the church is mysterious, magical, supernatural, inexplicable by ordinary reason, and they also believe that what takes place in the marketplace is ordinary, transparent, comprehensible, and utterly un-mysterious.

 

But, Marx says, what happens in the marketplace is merely the inversion of what happens in the church.  In the church, the substance changes and the accidents remain the same whereas in the marketplace the substance remains the same and the accidents change. If what happens in the church is mysterious then so must be what happens in the marketplace. This is, in my personal opinion, a stunningly brilliant move by Marx to force his readers to recognize that capitalism requires a deep, penetrating, demystifying account.

Friday, May 21, 2021

ONE LAST RESPONSE TO A COMMENT

The one sentence remark I made about the violence in Gaza triggered a long, complex anonymous three – part comment that in turn has provoked some responses. I do not really want to engage with the author, especially since he or she fails to identify himself or herself. It had occurred to me to make a comment about Native Americans, who have been on the North American continent for roughly 15,000 years, during the first 14,500 of which they were the sole human occupants, but someone got there first. Surely the impassioned author of that long comment will at least agree that Americans are under no obligation to contribute annually to the military expenses of Israel. But what struck me most powerfully was the unexamined assumption that there is something called “the Jewish people” who in all of their diasporic wanderings and intermarriages have remained unified, unadulterated, and somehow during all of this time the rightful owners of some particular stretch of land. That is not in any shape or form a political or historical or geographic observation, it is a religious claim and one therefore, as an atheist, I have nothing to say about.

 

I am nominally Jewish although neither I nor my father nor my father’s father was bar mitzvah. I have no idea at all whether I can trace my patrilineage to the people of the Old Testament. My father’s father’s family came from Northeast Poland by way of Paris in the last third of the 19th century. Their name then was Zarembovitch (changed to Wolff by an immigration official at Castle Garden in 1879). That is not a Hebrew name but a Slavic name of some sort. My father’s mother’s maiden name was Nislovski, also Slavic, and the family came from Vilna. My mother’s parents’ names were Ornstein and Perlmutter, and they came from Romania. If I could construct a family tree going back 2500 years, for all I know somewhere on it one would find Julius Caesar but I do not think I would lay claim to squatter’s rights in the Coliseum. Thirty of my relatives on my father’s side died in Auschwitz, a fact I only discovered 10 years ago when I met the two remaining members of the Zarembovitch clan in Paris. I am saddened and angered by that discovery but it would never cross my mind to think that it gave me a right to hold 2 million Palestinians prisoner.

 

Enough! 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

A RESPONSE TO SOME COMMENTS

Before I respond to a number of interesting comments, I feel the need to say something about several terrible things now taking place in the world, even though I have neither special insight nor any particular information to contribute regarding them. It just seems odd not to acknowledge their occurrence. The first is the truly awful spread of the virus in India, the second largest nation on earth. The second is the Israeli attacks on the huge sprawling open-air prison that they have been maintaining for decades in Gaza. My heart weeps for the first and my blood boils at the second. There is really nothing more I can say.

 

Let me now respond to three quite different comments that have been offered by readers of my most recent blog posts.

 

First with regard to my repeated invocation of the name of Karl Marx. Nothing I have said depends essentially on the use of his name or of such terms as “Marxism” or “Marxist.” I am afraid that invoking that name was simply a red herring, whatever a red herring is. One need not invoke the name of Charles Darwin to talk about evolution or the name of Albert Einstein to talk about general relativity, although simple piety might suggest an appropriate nod in that direction, and since the name “Marx” has become freighted (or fraught, to use the old past participle) with a great overlay of associations both positive and negative, let me write these comments without further reference to the 19th century German √©migr√©.

 

Second, and rather more importantly, why do I talk again and again about collective ownership of the means of production rather than about the many other issues that have been the focus of progressive or even revolutionary struggle in the past century, issues such as women’s liberation, black liberation, or gay liberation? The reason is simple but, in my judgment, exceedingly important. Each of these struggles, to which I have made tiny but deliberate contributions, is an effort to eliminate what might be called imperfections in capitalism. When women in large numbers enter the workforce as paid employees, they increase the supply of labor and thereby drive down wages, which, I believe, is why capitalists have not resisted this very important rectification of an old and unjust inequality. Instead of having to pay men what used to be called a “family wage” employers can reduce wages, counting on each household to send two or more earners into the labor force. The struggle to make women full participants in capitalism has been a liberation for countless scores of millions of women but in no way a threat to capital’s domination of the economy. The black liberation struggle has, especially in the United States, deep and complex roots in the history of slavery but in the end it accomplishes the same removal of an imperfection in the labor market. That is why, when cases come before the Supreme Court concerning such things as affirmative action admissions policies in colleges and universities, large corporations file amicus briefs supporting, not opposing, those policies. The gay liberation struggle, in which I have a very personal interest because my younger son is a proud gay man, in the same way offers no threat to the private ownership and control of the means of production. But any call for collective ownership of the means of production constitutes a threat to capitalism and is, in my judgment, for that reason a proposal of an entirely different nature.

 

If the ranks of billionaires, of corporate executives, of judges, of generals, and of other leading lights in modern economies perfectly reflected the distribution of women or people of color or LGBTQ individuals in society, it would no doubt open up avenues of advancement to people who are now closed off from such positions but it would make no fundamental difference in the nature of the modern world.

 

Finally, let me say something, or rather acknowledge how little I have to offer, about how one could organize a society based on collective ownership of the means of production without that society falling into tyranny or hierarchical authoritarianism. Please note that this question, when raised, seems implicitly to suggest that this problem has been solved for capitalism but poses a threat in a society based on the collective ownership of the means of production.  However, it would be a truly blind and Pollyanna-ish foolishness for anyone reflecting on the last hundred years of world events to make such a suggestion. As Gandhi is reputed to have said when asked what he thought about Western democracy, “it would be a good idea.”

 

To an extent that is not generally acknowledged, free and fair elections, impartial courts and justice, a free press and communications and all of the other blessings of modern democracy depend essentially on the fact that none of these indispensable and enormously valuable institutional arrangements poses any threat to the private ownership of the means of production. If it were to do so – if political parties were genuinely to win political power on programs of taking away ownership and control of the means of production from private individuals and vesting them in the collectivity – we might see a rapid and disastrous end of such things as free and fair elections or an impartial judiciary or a free press.

 

But this does not offer any guidance about how to make so fundamental a change in the organization of our society without risking tyranny – well-meaning tyranny, no doubt, but tyranny nonetheless. As I say, I have very little to offer along these lines but perhaps tomorrow I will try my hand at making some suggestions.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

A RESPONSE TO COMMENTS

I would like to respond to the comments of David Palmeter and “Marcel Proust” but I think they are too long to reproduce here so I will count on people who are interested to read them before reading this post. I agree with the thrust of both comments.

 

Let me begin by saying that the proper question is not “What will socialism look like when it arrives?” as though it were a foregone conclusion that something called “socialism” but rather “How should we organize an economy and society based on the collective ownership of the means of production?” now that such a state of affairs is for the first time structurally and organizationally possible. The word “socialism” is a placeholder, not an answer to a question, and as David Palmeter indicates in his comment, there are dangers to be guarded against as well as opportunities to be seized and questions to be answered.

 

Is it possible – or desirable – to maintain the explosive economic growth manifested by capitalism without private ownership of the means of production? What legal and political defenses can be designed to protect against tyranny or simply the inevitable desire of those in positions of collective leadership to protect and augment their influence? Can the freedom and independence of the press be maintained in some way other than private ownership of newspapers and television stations?  (Indeed, we might ask, is freedom and independence of the press maintained now by such private ownership?)

 

These are not rhetorical questions intended to close off discussion and leave us sadder but wiser with the conclusion that capitalism is the best we can do. They are genuine questions, answers for which would have to be developed and defended in an economic system grounded on collective ownership rather than private ownership of the means of production.

 

Would it be best to permit even very large accumulations of private wealth in the hands of those who themselves initiate innovations in production or distribution but then deny them the opportunity to pass ownership of that wealth to the heirs?

 

If I may raise in modern form an old question that troubled the Bolsheviks once they took power in Russia, can there be socialism in one country or would collective ownership of the means of production have to be a worldwide rearrangement of affairs?

 

I do not see these as questions that armchair critics like myself can answer after a bit of thought and study. Not even the wisest and most farseeing social observers in 16th century Europe could have anticipated the development of capitalism in sufficient detail to engage in anything remotely like social planning. The reason why I spend so much time emphasizing the tendencies now observable within capitalism and so little time speculating about ideal futures is that I think all of these questions can only be answered by the struggle and the effort of scores of millions of men and women working to make a better world for themselves and their children.

 

As for the comments of “Marcel Proust,” alas, I agree with them all too well. I have some confidence in my judgments only about the United States, where I can draw on eight decades of personal observation, and it is clear to me, as I have written on a variety of occasions, that four centuries of slavery and its aftermath have so darkened and distorted our collective social life that for scores of millions of men and women these days the desperate effort to preserve some measure of their white supremacy takes precedence over any consideration of economic justice.

 

A long time ago, in my writings and public speeches, I argued repeatedly that the secret to remaining politically committed and engaged was to find some way of fighting that one enjoys so that one would continue doing it even when the bands were not playing, the banners were not flying, and the folk singers were not singing our songs. Now that I am not too far from my 90th year, I am compelled to acknowledge that as good advice for my grandchildren because the fight for social justice will still be going on when they are my age.

 

 

A REPLY TO MY BIG SISTER

Well, my big sister read my reply to her questions and she commented that she was left puzzled by my deep pessimism. Let me briefly explain the source of my pessimism about the future of socialism. I shall be rehearsing things that I said in my paper of that title, but as Socrates replies when Callicles complains that Socrates says the same things over and over, “yes, and in the same way too.”

 

Marx was optimistic about the prospects for socialism not because he had a religious faith or was an incurable optimist but because he believed he saw structural developments within capitalism that were leading naturally to an evolution that would make socialism genuinely possible – not inevitable, not happening behind the backs of people as it were, but genuinely possible in the way that the fantasies of the Utopian Socialists were not.

 

Specifically, he believed that he was looking at six or more developments in mid-19th century capitalism that taken together constituted what he elsewhere described as the new order growing in the womb of the old. What were these developments?

 

First, Marx believed that capitalism would continue to drive out all pre-capitalist modes of production and spread across the entire world. Second, he believed that as this happened capitalist firms would grow larger and larger, become international in their organization and scope and operations, marginalizing or even destroying small local firms. Third, he believed that the cycle of booms and busts that had afflicted mid-19th century capitalism would continue and grow ever more violent and international in their scope. Fourth, he believed that governments in capitalist countries would be unable to control these booms and busts, that the vicious competition among capitalists would block them from taking the cooperative state actions that might serve to control the roller coaster movements of the economy or at least to modify them and make them manageable. Fifth, he believed that capitalism was eating away at and destroying the complex system of trades and crafts and transforming workers into a mass of semiskilled factory operatives whose common conditions of employment would foster and strengthen worker organization, first within single factories, then within entire industries, then within entire nations, and finally worldwide. And finally, sixth, he believed that capitalism was destroying traditional bonds of family, religion, ethnicity, race, and nationality, making it more and more likely that workers across nations and across the world would recognize their common interest and build bonds of fraternity that would strengthen their struggle against capitalists.

 

The effect of the working out of these structural changes, Marx was convinced, would lead on the one side to a worldwide economic crisis or crash and on the other side to the formation of a worldwide labor movement that would result finally in the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by collective ownership of the means of production, which is to say by socialism.

 

Marx believed that this world historical transformation would not happen automatically, as it were, but would be the result, if it did happen, of tremendous effort and struggle by workers against powerful, wealthy, politically well entrenched capitalist forces, but because he believed that these tendencies were intrinsic to the evolution of capitalism and did not depend on the goodwill of enlightened capitalists or anything of that sort, he believed he was looking at a moment of transition from one system of social relations of production to another.

 

Marx was right about much of what he anticipated but, alas, he was also wrong about a good deal. He was obviously right about the tendency of capitalism to conquer the world, and he was equally correct that as it did so capitalist firms would grow to enormous size and power, of a sort that had never been seen before in the history of the world. He was also right that the ever greater booms and busts would lead to a worldwide crash, although I suspect he anticipated that it would come a bit earlier than in the end it did.

 

But Marx was wrong about three big things, and these three taken together have, in my judgment, undermined the real possibility of a transition to socialism.

 

The first thing he got wrong was his failure to anticipate that capitalists would find a way through the governments that they controlled to work together and manage the destructive fluctuations of the economy. In effect, he failed to anticipate Keynes.

 

The second thing Marx got wrong was his failure to anticipate that mature capitalism (what we old lefties in happier days used to call late capitalism) would develop a steeply pyramidal and apparently permanent structure of compensation and privileges among employees that would defeat efforts to achieve widespread worker solidarity. The shirts and suits in modern corporations, as we used to refer to them, are objectively all exploited workers but the reality of their actual lives is entirely different. There is very little that can form the basis for solidarity between a day laborer making $15 an hour and a white-collar worker making $40 or $50 an hour and neither of them has much subjectively in common with a middle manager making $150,000 a year, regardless of what an “objective” analysis tells us.

 

The third thing Marx got wrong was his failure to realize the persistence of religious, ethnic, regional, racial, and national self – identifications of the sort that stand in the way of genuine international worker solidarity.

 

For all these reasons, I am, as my sister correctly observed, deeply pessimistic about the prospects for a transition to genuine socialism. I am not for moment suggesting that we should give up on our endless efforts to make the conditions of working people better, but I would be lying if I denied that that struggle is easier when you believe that history is on your side.

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.