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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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





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Saturday, June 19, 2021

BUT WHAT ABOUT THAT SWIVEL CHAIR?

But what about that swivel chair? Socialism may be all very well and good, very high-minded and all of that, but can it produce the goods? Let us be clear: when I talk about socialism I am not referring to a romantic return to an earlier time when we all kept chickens and used outhouses and sang folksongs and wore sandals and lived in little cottages with candles while we read poetry to one another and searched our inner selves. I am asking whether there is some way to move beyond the current advanced stage in the development of private ownership of the means of production in order to achieve genuine economic equality and collective democratic decisions about how to invest the surplus generated by our productive efforts.  As I pointed out in the first post of this little series, there are already developments within capitalism that are preparing the way for movement beyond. The divorce of legal ownership from day-to-day management is already well advanced. We are all mesmerized by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates – more of them in a moment. But for the most part, the functional operation of a modern capitalist economy has been separated from the legal ownership of capital.

 

It is quite obvious that democratically elected governments are capable of doing an efficient job of deploying capital for collectively agreed upon purposes. Private entrepreneurs may be selling seats in space capsules at fancy prices, but let us not forget that the first people to walk on the moon were government employees. Higher education in the United States is an odd mixture of private and public enterprise, but in many advanced capitalist countries the great universities are public institutions and it is really only the Catholic Church that clings to private higher education for otherworldly reasons. The cars we drive are made for profit by private corporations, but both in the United States and abroad the roads on which they drive are made and maintained by governments.

 

Private ownership of the means of production distorts what is made and consumed in ways that are personally profitable but socially undesirable. As I have observed before, because it is possible to get rich producing inexpensive well-made well-designed clothing, even the poor look good when they go from job to job trying to make enough to pay the rent. But for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with social welfare, expensive housing is profitable to produce while well-designed, well-made inexpensive housing is not.  Hence the rich are comfortably housed and the poor are not, even though these days when the two mix and mingle on public streets it may be difficult to tell one from the other. Why is public housing so poorly designed? Would it not be possible for government to produce well-designed housing? This is really two questions masquerading as one. Is it possible and is it politically acceptable in a capitalist economy? I will simply offer my opinion, which is that it is possible but that for political reasons public housing must be a blight on the landscape.

 

What about innovation? Are we really going to leave it to bureaucrats to pick and choose which ideas for new products on the production lines are to be funded? Is the world of the socialist future to become one vast bleak landscape of motor vehicle registry offices? Even sandals and candles and outhouses would be better than that!

 

Well, let us be honest about this. These days, ambitious innovative types who want to start a new company do not often acquire the capital by cheese paring, as in the old self-congratulatory early capitalist fairytales. They go to banks or equity funds.  Some way would have to be designed to capitalize lenders with public funds.  And to encourage socially valuable greed, which is to say entrepreneurial innovation, the terms would have to be such that successful innovators could become reasonably rich.  The problem is not that successful innovators become rich – and of course with taxation we can limit just how rich they become. The problem is what Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism, which is to say the ever greater accumulation of inherited wealth.

 

Will innovators sit on their hands if we deny them the opportunity to leave what they make to their children? I think the answer is no but quite obviously I cannot be certain about that. That is one of the as yet unanswered questions that a transition to socialism would have to confront.

 

But what about that swivel chair? Well, if it is made by craftspeople in a small privately owned and managed company, all well and good. If it is made by a huge international Corporation like IKEA, then that may be government owned. I seriously doubt that the chair would swivel less well if that were the case.

 

I have just scratched the surface but before I close I want to emphasize once again the central organizing idea behind this speculative post. If we want to know what socialism will look like, we must first ask what changes are already taking place within capitalism. To that we must add that the direction of further development will be determined not by armchair speculators like myself but by the collective decision-making of democratically chosen representatives. Does that pose problems? You bet it does! Are those problems greater than the problems we now have and live with in a capitalist economy? I do not think so, but then, I only have one vote.

 

 

35 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

Would you ban all inheritances or just inheritances over a certain amount? If the latter, what amount?

There's nothing like leaving your kids some money to make sure they have good memories of you. All childhood resentments towards parents disappears the day the will is read and the kid discovers that they received more money than they expected. Since few of us are perfect parents, there's something there to be said in favor of inheritances.

DDA said...

@wallerstein So, the more incompetent and mean the parent the more money the kids should get. Since meanness and incompetence has only a weak correlation with wealth, it would be best to let the government pool all the parental wealth and handle the distribution post-mortem. Additionally, meanness-testing has its drawbacks, so let's have the government divide the pot evenly.

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, I believe that there should be a limit on inheritancees. I have no idea how much. Not billions of dollars obviously nor hundreds nor tens of millions. Leiter once
talked about 5 million dollars, which is lot more than I have.

However, in the real world it's not a question of parents being incompetent or mean. There are conflicts which arise between well-intentioned parents and kids. Read Freud. And one definitive way of resolving those conflicts is to leave the kids some money.

Maybe your kids love you for yourself. Looking around in the real world, I see that nobody loves you when you're down and out, not even your kids or your wife. Money counts.

DDA said...

@wallerstein. Ummm, I was jokingly riffing on your post, arriving (via a magnificent pun) at a guaranteed annual income. Ah well.
And all my kids love and adore me.

aall said...

A few possibilities for a start.

1. Repeal Taft-Hartley.

2. An ~70% top marginal tax on all income except for restricted stock used as compensation. Tax such stock as regular income ex the restriction period.

3. Ban unrestricted stock as executive compensation.

4. End carried interest and the advantages of debt over equity. A transaction tax on trading.

5. UnBork anti-trust.

6. Some form of Yellen's global minimum tax schemes.

A well designed system would eliminate the concern over generational accumulation by eliminating the possibility of such accumulation (five million is too low, fifty too high).

s. wallerstein said...

aall,

I agree with most of what you say above.

I'm not sure whether Leiter said 5 million per heir or 5 million as a total estate. He might even have said 6 million. My memory is weak, but it's in that range.

LFC said...

Several times now Prof Wolff has said that the separation of legal ownership from day-to-day management in "advanced" capitalism prepares the way for something. The implication is that it prepares the way for government ownership (or some other form of collective ownership) while day-to-day management remains in the hands of executives hired for the purpose.

But if IKEA, say, is owned by the government but that ownership is divorced from management, what is to prevent the management from making day-to-day decisions that, for example, despoil the environment or exploit workers by overworking (or maybe underpaying) them? Answer: not much, except for legislation, but that would be no real improvement over what is at least theoretically possible now. The government or the collectivity must be involved in some way in management, at least in a overseeing way, if socialism is to have the full range of beneficial consequences hoped for. Simply substituting government ownership for private ownership of the corp's shares won't do much in the realm of policy when it comes to some key matters. It will reduce private fortunes and, to some extent, level out the distribution of wealth, but one wants more from socialism than that.

This points, arguably, to a larger problem with Prof Wolff's perspective. His insistence that the correct analysis must precede from the assumption that "the new is being birthed from the womb of the old" threatens to lead to an analytic dead end. What if Marx was wrong to think that new modes of production take shape "in the womb" of existing ones? What if, contrary to Marx's view, full-blown capitalism was not somehow inherent in the so-called feudal mode of production as its contradictions became more pronounced? What if the development of capitalism was much more contingent than that? Accepting a more robust role for chance and contingency would mean that Prof Wolff would no longer be as able to answer these questions by running down a checklist of developments in advanced capitalism and saying, in effect, "these developments are laying the groundwork for socialism."

Btw one of the striking omissions in this post is that says nothing about the role of markets, other than to say that "some way would have to be found to capitalize lenders with public funds." This is a bit odd considering the amount of ink that has been spilled on the debates about "market socialism" over the years.

Finally, what about that swivel chair? Will the wood or metal or other material from which it's made continue to be obtained by destroying the planet's natural resources, covered by the fig leaf of rhetoric about "sustainable" growth or development that in practice means very little? Would a socialist economy continue capitalism's obsession with economic growth as an end in itself? The post says that innovation would have to continue to be rewarded, but what kind of innovation? Do we want entrepreneurs spending their time on dreaming up products and services that have no relation to the larger goals that a socialist economy is supposed to be advancing? The post doesn't appear to address any of these questions.

LFC said...

typo correction: "an overseeing way"

LFC said...

Btw, what Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism underlies a certain amount of the philanthropy that supports a good deal of "high culture" and also not-so-high culture, at least in the U.S. (And higher education and research, to some extent.) So govt or public money would probably have to substitute for some of that.

Howie said...

You're guilty of an elementary logical error: confusing 'ought' for 'is' or 'can.'
The Christians make the same error: there ought to be a God so there is a God.
You are so intoxicated by the idea of socialism that you get giddy like a kid on the last day of school and your enthusiasm has hijacked your critical faculties.
I think Bertrand Russell would agree with me.
I think you'll be dreaming of socialism until your last breath: but it is a dream

Jerry Brown said...

This is a pretty whacky comment section.

S Wallerstein brings up inheritances and how they might make your children love you. If you are paying someone to love you- that's not love- you have screwed up big time somewhere. That is a contractual situation.

LFC- "what is to prevent the management from making day-to-day decisions that, for example, despoil the environment or exploit workers by overworking (or maybe underpaying) them?" Sure it is very possible that a government would exploit workers, or at least some of them. But if you are talking about an elected government then at least you have a vote- which is more than you have when dealing with a private corporation.

Howie- well I don't know what to say to that. I was raised as a Christian and I am sure many others were as well. There's a bit more to it than "there ought to be a God so there is a God" even if you are not sure there is a God. Bertrand Russell maybe might agree with you- but Jesus was a socialist.

Another Anonymous said...

Jerry,

It doesn't help to point out that Jesus was a socialist, given what they did to him.

Reality bites.

Jerry Brown said...

Another Anonymous, arguably, Jesus has had a large impact on quite a few people in many parts of the world. Despite what happened to him. But maybe the socialist aspect I take from it is not all that appreciated.

Aren't you supposed to be washing windows or something? Reality bites.

Another Anonymous said...

Jerry,

Unfortunately, Jesus’s socialist message has been largely lost on the world – including among those who purport to admire him, at the same time that they preach the Protestant Ethic of predestination.

Yes, reality bites, and here are three examples, two I experienced recently, and one I saw reported on PBS last week.

Yesterday, before I wrote my “reality bites” comment, I went to the grocery store to do some shopping (at Kroger’s, a major Midwest grocery chain). As I exited my car in the parking lot, I could hear the strains of “Amazing Grace” being played on a violin. I looked around for the source, and there on the sidewalk in front of the store was a man playing a violin. I walked over to give a listen, and he had a cardboard box for donations. So. I dropped several dollars into the box, and listened as he finished. He had a sign which read, “Please help. I have a wife and two young children. Need money for food and rent.” His wife and two children (two boys, about six and seven years old) were sitting on the ground next to the wall. After he finished, I asked him what kind of work he had been doing before the pandemic. He told me – in broken English – that he did construction, but hasn’t been able to find any jobs recently. I asked him if he knew any classical music, like the Paganini Caprices, and he said No. I wished him well, said hello to his sons, and went into the store to do my shopping. As I was leaving, I could see he was still playing, and there were several people photographing him with their cameras. I watched to see if any of them went up to him to make a donation. One person walked up to him, and I assume made a donation. The other person finished getting her pictures and walked away – she had accomplished what she wanted, she had these pictures of this man playing a violin in a parking lot which she could now show to her grandkids.

About two months ago, I was leaving another major grocery store and there was a woman sitting on the ground at the exit, also with a sign asking for donations. I dropped $5 into her receptacle and asked her what she had been doing before the pandemic and whether she had a husband. She told me she had been doing house cleaning before the pandemic, but that work was no longer available. Yes, she had a husband, but he had left her to go back to Europe. I thought she was Middle Eastern, and asked her nationality. She told me she was Roma. While I was there, I was the only person who gave her a donation, as person after person walked by. I got into my car to leave, and as I was driving by, I could see a store manager had come out and was talking to her. I inferred that he was telling her that no solicitors were allowed near the store. I rolled down my window and yelled, “Leave her alone. She’s not hurting anyone!” He responded, “Sir, please mind your own business.” I yelled back, “This is my business,” as the woman got up to leave.

(Continued)

Another Anonymous said...

Last week on PBS News, they reported the story of an African-American incarcerated in prison in Missouri (I don’t remember his name). He had been sentenced when he was 18 to 40 years for armed robbery, of which he had served 24 years. The current prosecutor of St. Louis, where he had been convicted, has a program to review cases in which her office may have made a mistake. She had reviewed his file and concluded that he was innocent. Two other people who had been incarcerated after he was sentenced had filed affidavits indicating that they were the guilty parties, and that he had not been there. His sister had filed an affidavit indicating the he had been with her on the day and time of the crime. And one of the witnesses who had identified him had signed an affidavit that he had made the identification after being coerced by the police – but he could not identify the culprits because they were wearing ski masks, and he could only see their eyes. The current prosecutor, who is African-American, had filed a motion to grant him a new trial, which the judge denied. She took the case up to the Missouri Supreme Court, where she was opposed by the Attorney General of Missouri – a Republican, of course, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the denial of a new trial. The only option now is seeking a writ of habeas corpus in federal court – but they are notoriously difficult to obtain these days, what with all of the Republicans Trump got appointed to the U.S. District Courts. So, in all likelihood, this man is going to have to serve out his 40-year sentence for a crime he likely did not commit.

My point? The world is a very cruel place, and I don’t see it getting any less cruel any time soon.

And I don’t write this to discourage or scoff at efforts, as recommended by Prof. Wolff, to seek to make the world a better place, or to present myself as more mature than those who advocate change. My concern, which I have expressed in prior posts, is that in trying to make things better by seeking radical change in the political system, that you unleash forces that result in making things far worse. And it could get worse, given the kinds of people who would take pictures of a man playing a violin in a parking lot, just for its amusement value; and a store manage who may believe he is a God fearing Christian, but is willing to tell a woman seeking donations, because that’s what his employer had told him what to do; or an Attorney General and judges, sworn to uphold the law and seek justice, are willing to turn a blind eye to a gross injustice. And there are plenty of people like them out there. We have all heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, I acknowledge that the system is broke, and badly broke, but there could be a corollary to that saying - “If it’s broke, don’t try to fix it in ways which could make it worse.” And history has shown that some ways of making the world a better place have back-fired – look at China.

David Palmeter said...

I don’t think you’ve solved the innovation problem. Intra-governmental innovation would fall on a continuum between the extremely difficult to the politically impossible. The Department of Chairs would have located chair factories in key states and House districts. It would block R&D for competing products and would be strongly supported by key congressional delegations, much as agricultural subsidies and the latest money-wasting jet fighter program are.

This is not a governmental problem per se, but an institutional problem. The same thing can go on in a corporation. Thirty or so years ago, I was involved in a trade dispute case over a product then called “flat panel displays.” They are the screens on your lap top and your wall-mounted TV. You may remember the early lap top screens—no color, black background and orange letters.

The modern color screen was just beginning and the technological leaders were Japanese companies: Toshiba, Hitachi etc. Sony, whose Trinitron was the gold standard of the earlier cathode ray tube technology, was conspicuously absent at that point. The topic came up in a group discussion: where is Sony? We were told by Japanese industry representatives that the Trinitron division of Sony was the big money maker for the company and it wielded tremendous power internally. Officials of that division, the story went, were able to block any significant R&D for a product that would make the Trinitron obsolete. So it was not until after its Trinitron patents expired that Sony came out with its own flat panel display. They were late to the game and were never the player in the flat panel industry that they were in the cathode ray industry.

As to taxes: right now the Federal estate and gift taxes apply only to estates and gifts in excess of more than $11 million. There’s plenty of room to cut that amount way back and still allow parents to give or leave something for their kids.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

You're the Edward Gibbons reader, I believe.

This week's BBC In Our Time podcast is about him.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000x0v2

LFC said...

It might be worthwhile, in light of some aspects of the post and comments, to take another look (or a first look, if one hasn't read it before) at Harrington's _Socialism: Past and Future_ (1989), maybe esp. chs. 7 and 8. Glancing at ch. 7, I see the following: "... socialization cannot be thought of as a mere shift of ownership title from a private to a public bureaucracy." (p. 216)

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

thanks very much.

Michael said...

"You're guilty of an elementary logical error: confusing 'ought' for 'is' or 'can.'"

Interesting way to put it. See also axiarchism: Drawing on the long tradition of Platonism, axiarchists such as John Leslie, Derek Parfit and Nicholas Rescher posit a direct link between goodness and existence. (source)

Also, not to be a jerk, but... I would gently suggest trying to chill out a bit. "I think you'll be dreaming of socialism until your last breath: but it is a dream" - I get the impression that most people here, including Prof. Wolff, have significant doubts about socialism becoming a reality. I forget who said it, but we aren't necessarily taking sides in the fight with the expectation that we can win it.

s. wallerstein said...

Michael,

If you're suggesting that socialism should be our ethical ideal, fine. Very few regular commenters here would disagree with that.

It's like saying that respect and consideration for others should be our ethical ideal. For sure. But out there in the real world we don't see much respect and consideration for others and very few of us expect the situation will improve in the foreseeable future.

And if socialism is just our ethical ideal, we're no longer Marxists, I believe. We're the kind of utopian dreamers that Marx condemned so mercilessly in his writings.

Michael Llenos said...

"I am asking whether there is some way to move beyond the current advanced stage in the development of private ownership of the means of production in order to achieve genuine economic equality and collective democratic decisions about how to invest the surplus generated by our productive efforts."

Perhaps this is why Communism developed onto the scene. All of the socialist thinkers were developing a system that wouldn't be realistic until there developed a Star Trek like economy.

Michael said...

My fault, s.w. - that was all directed at Howie, whose comment I found a bit grating. I should've been clearer (but I happen to be a bit foggy while recovering from a, er, nasty chemical episode, haha).

And yeah, I guess Marx wouldn't be too happy with a lot of people who've found his thought valuable.

I'm not especially passionate or educated about political philosophy myself, mostly a casual observer who semi-thoughtfully despises the Republican Party et al. (while having the dumb luck to enjoy a lot of accidental "privilege," or protection from the negative impacts of their politics). So naturally, when I see people arguing in the neighborhood of "revolutionary systemic overhaul, and nothing less; versus, incremental leftward progress within the system," I don't find myself as inclined to really believe in the former, out of an instinctive "pragmatism" for lack of a better word. Not saying it's the right way to be. But as far as I can tell, I do have respect for the more radical viewpoints, and often find them a good source of guidance in getting clearer about ideals.

If my personal orientation is too lukewarm and superficial for Marx/Marxism, I'll just have to deal with that, while enjoying the reading and discussion in the meantime.

s. wallerstein said...

Michael,

What you have to say is in no way superficial.

Marx himself might have mocked you, but he was not a tolerant fellow.

Tolerance is a virtue in my set of values at least.

Michael said...

Appreciate that, thank you. "Tolerance is a virtue in my set of values at least" - yep, I can tell. :)

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

LFC,
You suggest that maybe Marx was wrong about a new system developing in the womb of the own. If that be the case, what do you make of the development of capitalism? Just how did that happen? As I recall from my history classes. Capitalism didn't appear out of nothing as feudal society suddenly collapsed. Capitalists need a labor market - a mass of folks who need to sell their labor to earn money to live. That condition grew as I am sure you know out of the enclosures, a process of driving peasants off the lands of the nobility, thereby breaking the relations of production that obtained in feudal society. There we no factories suddenly appearing out of thin air to employ the now landless peasants

As the enclosures began in earnest in the 15th century and continued for roughly 200 years, a renaissance began as feudal society declined and the beginnings of modern science started to flourish as the control exercised by the catholic church weakened. One quick example here: scholars and students at the Univ. of Padua were protected from clerical interference by the Duke. Medical students went to class in the now famous Gross Anatomy Theater. The dissection table has a top which can be moved so as to allow the body to be dumped into the river if the clerics were on their way. Medicine, and other social and scientific studies began in spaces in feudal society as its power was weakening. The scientific revolution began long before capitalism appeared, but the very appearance of capitalism was dependent on scientific advances.

So perhaps on this point Marx was correct.



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

correction: "womb of the old." In the best of circumstances I miss many of my typos. But I just got a new computer, I am now making exponentially more typos and it driving me nuts!

LFC said...

@ CJM

Unfortunately I don't have time at the moment to go into this much, except to say that how capitalism emerged, and even how capitalism shd be defined for these purposes (i.e., emergence of different modes of labor control in different parts of Europe that were tied together to some extent by trade/exchange (cf. I. Wallerstein) vs. emergence of wage labor on a large scale as the key criterion) are long-contested questions. I had to acquaint myself, to some extent, w some of these debates in grad school, but that was a while ago. (I think primitive accumulation as Marx discusses it is part of the story but probably not the whole.) Merchants and entrepreneurs (and eventually owners of industrial capital) needed relatively strong states to support them or at least establish favorable legal frameworks and conditions, which means from this angle that the emergence of capitalism is tied in w what the social scientists and historians call state formation.

Also, there's the development of technology and invention to be reckoned with, which is perhaps where chance and contingency enter the picture in an obvious way. Nothing really says that hydropower or the spinning jenny (if I'm remembering that name right) or the cotton gin or the railroad or the assembly line had to emerge when and as they did. RPW acknowledged that nothing is at all certain etc., that political choices will be decisive, but I think a more explicit emphasis on chance might be called for, though I don't know exactly where that leads in terms of answering the questions that these posts were attempting tentatively to answer (except perhaps to make everything even more tentative).

Another Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

Would I be correct to conclude that you are related to Immanuel Wallerstein, referred to by LFC above?

s. wallerstein said...

Another,

No, no known relationship. I once emailed him noting a facial resemblance between some family members and him and asking where his family came from, but he did not reply.

Another Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

No, no, of course you are related. How many Wallersteins could there be in the world? And the fact that he never responded to your letter proves it. He doesn't want you to get any ideas about being entitled to an inheritance.

I think you should have Henry Louis Gates look into this.

Another Anonymous said...

Uh oh. I just checked. Prof. Wallerstein passed away in 2019. You better hurry up to Connecticut before they finish probating his will. (I know, being the humanist that you are, you are going to disclaim any interest in his estate.)

LFC said...

Another Anonymous,

Though I never met him in person, I had some connection with I. Wallerstein, namely, he read my dissertation and his is one of the three signatures on its title page. His The Modern World-System, esp. vol. 1, is deservedly considered a classic of historical social science. He was very prolific, publishing a lot of articles, essays, and in later years, regular commentaries on his website. A selection of his work may be found in The Essential Wallerstein (The New Press, 2000). See also World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Duke Univ. Press, 2004).

I know you're trying to be humorous, but I find your comments immediately above to be in rather poor taste, frankly.

s. wallerstein said...

I found the comments funny, perhaps, because, as Another points out, I'm not the kind of person who would do that. Thanks, Another, for the legal advice.

Another Anonymous said...

LFC,

Please, lighten up. I am quite sure that my comments have not disturbed Prof. Wallerstein's eternal rest.