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Monday, May 24, 2021


 Oh well.


John Rapko said...

A variation on an old Jewish joke: A man finds an old lamp. When he polishes it, a genie pops out and says "I'll grant you any wish." The man replies: "I want resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict and a lasting and just peace in the region." The genie exclaims: "Are you meshuga?? Look at this historical map of the the Middle East! Don't you know the history, the issues, the atrocities! Ask for something else." The man says, "Okay, I want to be able to explain the basics of Marx to a bunch of highly intelligent, contentious, and unreflective anonymous internet mavens." The genie replies: "Let's look at that map again."

AnonymAss said...

Likewise, but don't ask me what was decisive.

LFC said...

The comment thread your post prompted was actually not that terrible, although for various reasons I decided to stop participating in it.

I think most people grasped the point you were trying to make. Grasping the point and agreeing that Marx *had* a point here are, of course, two different things.

I think the commenter at the end of the other thread who views Marx's point re transubstantiation as a literary/rhetorical device is probably right.

AnonymAss said...

That particular rhetorical device was used to suggest a certain loss of information, a mystification as Marx calls it, and as Prof Wolff points out. But opposing counsel isn't going to drop the case. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

I have a good friend, a Holocaust survivor who is now in his 90s.

When he emigrated to the United States after the war, he taught theoretical physics at Columbia University and knew Oppenheimer and Teller.

I emailed him my parable about the Israel and he told me not to waste my time publicizing it, because, he said, those in the intelligentsia are too immersed in their own smug and self-satisfied thinking about Israel to see the reality of what is occurring in the Middle East and prefer to blame Israel for the loss of life which Hamas is engineering.

I disagreed with him, insisting that rational dialogue and a historically accurate chronology offered to people who pride themselves on their objectivity and analytic skills can be persuaded of the truth. He said, “Good luck.”

I emailed him the thread about Marx and transubstantiation as a literary device, and he responded in the same vein, that it is a waste of time to try to persuade people who think you can draw valid conclusions from a literary device.

Again, I persisted that surely an appeal to logic to those who pride themselves on their mastery of logic would demonstrate the inefficacy of drawing meritorious conclusion about the world from a clever literary device. He said, “Good luck.”

Oh well, he was right on both counts.

AnonymAss said...

Counselor, your M.O., in your varied pseudonymous cameo appearances in this blog, has been to misattribute positions to others that you then refute. I myself sent the thread to a distinguished superannuated fart of my own acquaintance, who of course agreed with me.

Anonymous said...


What can one possibly say to a person who uses a pseudonym in which s/he candidly refers to him/herself as an “ass” and takes another pseudonymous writer to task for using a pseudonym.

AnonymAss said...

Another misconstrual. I wasn't taking you (if you are the same Anonymous) to task for using a pseudonym, I was remarking as a long-time reader of this blog that whatever your handle, you consistently misattribute to others positions that miss the point by a wide mark and that don't require much effort to refute. This M.O. is independent of the pseudonym, which has varied during your tenure here.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Marx wrote a book that almost nobody understands, and it is not because the Das Kapital is poorly written. Rather, lack of understanding comes from approaching Marx with a myriad of misconceptions of which the reader is unaware, and a panoply of beliefs that prior interpreters have left to us to function as socially necessary proofs that Marx was wrong about everything. It’s kind of amusing, though in a depressing sort of way, that irony has been understood as a “mere” literary device. Socrates is, I guess, not laughing.

And once again, Anonymous proves that ignorance of the topic at hand combined with arrogance produces nothing of value.

LFC said...

At risk of beating a dead horse, I never replied to Anonymous's question in the other thread, paraphrasing: "if the labor theory of value is (or is presumed to be) correct, why does that make the exchange of commodities have an element of mystery?"

I think the answer, acc. to Marx, lies in what he calls the mysterious nature of the commodity-form, namely as both a physical thing and the embodiment of the "abstract" human labor that gives it its value, and moreover a thing whose character as the latter (an embodiment of abstract labor) is not immediately and transparently obvious, even if it is recognized at some level in the marketplace. If the commodity is mysterious, then in some sense the exchange of commodities also must be.

In other words,

labor theory of value -> "mysterious" character of the commodity-form -> "mysterious" character of commodity exchange

Now, perhaps this is just wrong, but it's not self-evidently nuts. I mean, it's not a position that is so totally devoid of any possible basis that one couldn't construct some kind of argument for it. (Which is what Marx did.)

Note that this doesn't depend at all on the transubstantiation literary device, or whatever you want to call it, and the business about accidents and substance. You can pretty much forget all that and still end up where Marx does on this. That literary device is an invitation to the reader, as has been said, but not a crucial part of the story.

Btw, I don't think that if I were to re-read Capital vol.1 I wd be quite as big a fan of the bk as RPW is. But that's neither here nor there. There is v. good stuff in it, even if one ends up rejecting some or a lot of the arguments/positions. I think that's where I'd probably come out if I were to re-read it today.

Anonymous said...


Well, I too give up.

First it was suggested that Marx had made a brilliant insight by comparing the exchange of goods in an economy to the Catholic ritual of transubstantiation. But no, Marx did not mean the comparison to be taken literally, it was merely a literary device intended to invite the reader to considering the “mystery” of what is occurring in what appears to be a mundane exchange of goods, created by the labor of the individuals making the exchange, whether it is in a bartering culture or in a monetary system.

So, I was being hyper-technical when I interpreted the transubstantiation reference to be intended to convey some meaningful analysis of what is going on in the exchange of goods. No, the exchange of goods is somehow as “mysterious” as the change of the substance of the wine and wafer into the blood and body of Christ – which truly is a mystery – but not quite as mysterious, because we know no such miraculous change occurs in the exchange of goods. But there is a “mystery” nonetheless.

Is this “mystery” any more mysterious than the mystery of causation itself which Hume had explored with great analytic acuity? Is it anymore “mysterious” than when a builder takes a formless collection of lumber and transforms it into a house? What was once a formless jumble of wood has, by the builder’s labor, miraculously and mysteriously been transformed into a house, an object with structure that has a function. Is it anymore mysterious than the change alluded to in the Wallace Stevens poem I quoted, referring to the mysterious change of water from the states of liquid to ice, or from liquid to steam, depending on the ambient temperature? What is so unique about the exchange which occurs in an economic system, be it a bartering culture or a monetary system, which sets this phenomenon apart from the general mysteries of the universe which we take for granted every day. Where is the unique “mystery”?

Anonymous said...


Re-reading my comment (an admittedly ego-centric habit with respect to which I assume I am not the only culprit), I thought what would Wittgenstein say about this dispute? Would he not say that we are manufacturing a philosophical issue out of nothing? That we are interjecting mystery where there is none?

Prompted by this reflection, I did a search on Google regarding what did Wittgenstein think of Marx, and found the following:

Apparently Marcuse did not think much of Wittgenstein (and I suspect the reciprocal would also have been true, which reminds me of the dialogue exchange which ubiquitously appeared scrawled on college dormitory walls during the 1960’s: “ ‘God is dead.’ Nietzsche. ‘Nietzsche is dead’ God.”)

I particularly enjoyed this quote by French philosopher/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the preface of the above article:

“Wittgenstein is probably the philosopher who has helped me most at moments of difficulty. He’s a kind of saviour for times of great intellectual distress – as when you have to question such evident things as ‘obeying a rule’. Or when you have to describe such simple (and, by the same token practically ineffable) things as putting a practice into practice.” Beautiful.

LFC said...

Two can play the quotation game.

Here's Robert Heilbroner, in _Marxism: For and Against_ p. 103 (italics in original):

"There are few insights in all of Marx's writings as striking as the fetishism of commodities - indeed, few in all of social science. The perception that commodities possess the property of exchange value because they are the repositories of an abstract [or 'homogeneous'] form of labor; that this abstract labor testifies to the social and technical relationships of a specific mode of production; and *that a commodity is therefore the carrier and the encapsulation of the social history of capitalism* -- all this comes as a stunning realization."

This may not have a lot directly to do w "mystery" as some may construe that word, but I thought it was worth quoting anyway. Heilbroner was an economist (prob best known for his popular history of ec thought, _The Worldly Philosophers_). Wrote a lot of other books also. Not a self-identified Marxist.

He's treating, roughly, abstract or homogeneous labor here as equivalent to the form of labor that comes to the fore under capitalism, as artisans etc are increasingly deprived of their tools and forced to sell their labor power (p. 101). Offhand I'm not sure this *exactly* tracks Marx's use of the phrase "abstract labor," but it prob does at least to some extent.

Anonymous said...


I see no more mystery in your quotation of Heilbroner than I see in the miraculous transformation by a builder of a pile of lumber into a house. I believe Wittgenstein would say of all of this that philosophers are using jargon and argot to introduce mystery where there is none – at least no more mystery than in other events and occurrences which we witness every day. And I believe Wittgenstein would be correct.

Michael said...

I took a handful of courses in elementary education before I became interested in philosophy, and I found them surprisingly effective in preparing me for the subject. They promoted a habit of asking, "How would I explain X - this 'obvious' thing which I 'know' (but have pretty much forgotten how I ever learned) - to a child?"

(Hilary Putnam somewhere called philosophy "education for grown-ups.")

Anyway, I think a good way to gain a sense of the mystification at work in people's defenses or basic descriptions of capitalism, is to take a variety of everyday facts about individual work and about economic value, to ask why those facts are as they are, and to answer as if from the standpoint of a child - only to find your explanations absurdly, frustratingly inadequate (and then perhaps to conclude, "Oh well, the folks in charge probably know something I don't").

Child 1 and Child 2 might've both gotten high grades on their science fair projects, seemingly in proportion to the quality of their work, seemingly in proportion to the time and honest effort invested in learning the material. That's the lesson that the parents and teachers hope they learn, anyway. But what if the children pause to ask something like, "Why does Child 2 wear nicer clothes than Child 1, and why does Child 2 eat home-prepared lunches while Child 1 is served by the school cafeteria?"

What would an honest and comprehensible (to children) answer look like? And how analogous might it be to the lessons we want them to draw from their science fair grades? Would/should the children be satisfied and persuaded simply to hear something along the lines that the work performed by Child 2's parents isn't as demanding, or is of a lower quality, or is of use to fewer (and similarly "untalented, unengaged") people, compared to the work performed by Child 1's parents? Or that these criteria could be precisely quantified so as to demonstrate that one parent's work is some 20 times "more valuable" than another's? (What could that "20 times" possibly mean?) What does this imply about workers who don't even receive a livable pay? Etc.

Most likely the children would sense a lot of bugs in our first attempts at an explanation; and they might even become suspicious, as if we're concealing something ugly and offensive, something in the neighborhood of what a more sophisticated theorist would describe in terms of systematic exploitation and reckless, opportunistic greed. Mystification would mean losing that sense of bugginess.

Anonymous said...


This is what I would say to those boys and girls who don’t understand why there are what appear to be unfair and inexplicable, mysterious differences in the way different people are compensated for their work.

I would say, you know when you are choosing up teams to play softball, and you know among you who is the best pitcher, the best catcher, the best first base person, second base person, etc., and when you choose up sides for two different teams you try to get the better of the two players for each of those positions, but you have more boys and girls than there are positions, and there is Bobby, and there is Sally, who are not particularly good at any of the positions, so you prefer not to pick them, but the coach says everyone has to be given a chance to play, so you have to include Bobby and Sally at some position, because this is fair, and so Bobby and Sally get chosen, against what some of you think is your better judgment.

But then, on a particular day, the coach says the winning softball team will be taken out for pizza and will not have to do homework for a week, and you ask the coach, coach given what’s at stake, do we still have to pick Bobby and Sally to play, since the team which has to play one or both of them is likely to lose, and we don’t want to lose. And the coach relents and says this one time, you don’t have to pick Bobby or Sally to be on your team; this one time you do not have to be fair.

Real life is a lot like that game where which team wins gets the pizza and no homework for a week; and the team which loses gets no pizza and still has to do homework for a week. You see , in real adult life the people who work have to support themselves and buy their food, shelter, clothes, etc.; and they often have families that they need to support. Now, in this real world, society values the work done by people which requires more skill to perform, or more education, and is willing to pay more for that work because there are fewer people who can do it well, or who want to do it. People therefore try to learn those skills and obtain that education, so that in the game of life they can provide more of those essential things for their families, as well as not so essential things which make life more enjoyable. But not everybody has the ability to learn those skills, or the interest in obtaining that special education, because some of those occupations which pay more because they require more skill or more education, require a lot of reading, and some people do not like to read a lot; or requires a lot of memorization, like the different parts of the body, but they don’t like to memorize things, because it is hard for them.

And there are certain kinds of work which involves entertaining people, like athletes, singers and actors, because people like to be entertained, and not all people have the talent required to entertain, the public is willing to compensate these talented people more than those who lack such talent. These people – the people who do not like to read, the people who do not like to memorize, and the people who do not have the talent to entertain - unfortunately have to settle for the lower paying jobs, which may be unfair, but life is not like the game where you are required to choose Bobby and Sally to play. And since in real life there are a lot of Bobbies and Sallies who do not like to read, or do not like to memorize, or are not talented, the people who choose whom to hire have a large number of Bobbies and Sallies to choose from, which makes them what is called “expendable,” unless there is a pandemic, when a lot of the expendable people are, for a period of time, regarded as essential.

So, adult life is like that game you play where the winner gets the pizza and no homework; and the loser gets no pizza and has to do the homework, and where fairness is not a major consideration. That’s what I would tell them, and I think it would remove the sense of mystery regarding economic disparities. And I would feel no need to talk about transubstantiation.

LFC said...


This comment at 1:33 p.m. marks a new low for you.

It takes one tiny kernel of truth and blows it up into an absurd just-so story. You talk about people who like to read, memorize, and entertain. You ignore, for instance, people who are skilled, or become skilled, in a mechanical way, many of whom make good livings (plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, etc.).

Then, too, there's the consideration that too many people from the standpoint of the corporate and university marketplace "like to read" and study certain things, which is why, for instance, there are adjunct professors making poverty-level wages.

And then, of course, there's the unmentioned elephant in the room, which is that who your parents are and what their standard of living is has a substantial impact on life prospects, and why if Bob is raised in zip code X and Sally in zip code Y, Bob may (may -- nothing is certain) end up better off even if Sally is more talented in many respects.

It's really better to tell kids nothing at all then feed them the sort of **** you propose to say.

Life is unfair, of course, but it's not some kind of regularly patterned unfairness such that if you "like to read, memorize, or entertain" you end up well-off and everyone else is at the lower end of the income dist. That's b.s. It's not how the economy or life chances work. Luck plays a role, and all kinds of random factors.

Your own experience is probably distorting your vision here. For example, there is now, and has been for some time, a glut of law school graduates. So a lot of JDs don't end up as successful lawyers, as you did, but do other things. Some may end up as relatively "successful," others may not. The mere accumulation of formal education and a string of fancy letters after one's name really don't guarantee much of anything.

So your just-so story is exactly that: it's a fairy tale. Michael's approach is much better.

LFC said...

typo correction: 5th paragraph: "then" should be "than"

LFC said...

P.s. And it's odd that, in a tale basically designed to justify capitalism's inequalities, you left out, e.g., entrepreneurs and inventors.

The kid whose parents were immigrants from Mexico or central America, doesn't necessarily have formal education beyond high school, and sets up a successful, say, landscaping and grass-cutting (or whatever) business is sort of a walking advertisement for the so-called American dream, even though he may not be a great "reader," "memorizer," or "entertainer."

Anonymous said...

You know, LFC, there is only so much one can write about a complicated subject in a blog comment section limited to 3,999 characters. So, of course, inevitably, there were omissions and over-simplifications in what I wrote. I did not include skilled trades in my discussion, nor did I exclude them – they are within the compass of people who are talented and skilled, and therefore can command a higher income.

Moreover, Michael offered no explanation to the young people he was writing about – other than that there is some mystification in the economic system which is ineluctable.

Contrary to your assumption, I am not extraordinarily wealthy. Moreover, I grew up lower middle class – my parents never owned a car or a home, they rented. And what would you tell the young people that would ameliorate the inequities that stem from the vagaries of life regarding the status of parents whom none of us get to choose? Would it not be better to tell them that in order to get out of the cycle of poverty they may find themselves in, they should work hard to obtain a good education, or hone their natural talents, whether they be in athletics or entertainment, or learn a skilled trade, and hope that luck will be on their side? What would your antidote be for the vagaries of fortune, “such that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all”?

Michael said...

Yeah, I didn't really attempt to answer the young people's question (and I do appreciate your attempt, Anonymous) - I just gestured toward some gross implausibility in what would be (where I'm from, anyway) a not-uncommon response. Its implausibility along with its "obviousness" are suggestive to me of mystification, but plenty of other people have written more deeply and insightfully about this than I could ever hope to.

Thankfully I've never had to have this talk with a child! But I do dread the day when I may have to give some William Pannapacker-type advice* to my nephew as he enters the world of higher education and perhaps falls in love with the "life of the mind."

If I had to put my very limited understanding of the "real world" on display (I'm a mid-30s ex-adjunct working half-time in a non-academic job while on disability), the most I could say would be: Personal effort does increase your chances of living a life that isn't materially impoverished; but for some people this effort is optional; and for vastly many people, this effort is necessary but insufficient - a great deal of luck (in both the "nature" and "nurture" categories, and in terms of opportunity) is required as well. So far this is platitudinous.

But in line with the bit about mystification, I would add that many people (basically conservatives, IMO) are inclined, if not fervently committed, to downplay or deny this fact about luck (hence the illusion that society is largely meritocratic); and that this mystification and denialism reduce the likelihood that our species is capable of the selflessness and imagination required to solve its social/economic/political problems - these problems, I think, boiling down to: Some people (vastly many people) are needlessly vulnerable to having their lives wrecked by sheer chance. (Obviously some vulnerability is always there: disease, disaster, disability, etc. But progress depends on the belief that some of our vulnerabilities - those brought about by social/economic/political problems - are collectively self-inflicted and thus avoidable through collective determination.)

*I'm not sure if this is a well-known reference. Pannapacker (AKA Thomas Benton) in 2009 wrote a popular column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go" (unfortunately it's now behind a paywall).

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