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Sunday, November 7, 2021


Rereading the classic texts of modern political theory in preparation for the course I am teaching in the spring has had the unexpected effect of clarifying for me what is going on in the United States at the moment. I have been unhelpfully obsessed with the behavior of prominent political figures of all stripes and characters and have spent a good deal of time worrying about what will happen in the 2024 presidential election. I have tended to couch my concerns in the form of an anxiety about the future of American democracy, always remembering as a faithful member of the left to add the qualifying phrase “such as it is.” But rereading Jean-Jacques Rousseau reminded me that in democratic theory the people are the sovereign.  And it is more clear now than it has been in many decades that the American people – not their elected representatives or their spokespersons or, to use a term that has come into vogue since I stopped paying attention, their influencers – are not now by any stretch of the imagination the collective sovereign of a democratic polity. I still care desperately what happens because there are as many degrees of undemocracy as there are levels of hell in Dante’s Inferno and I much prefer the undemocracy to which we still cling to that of Russia or Nazi Germany or, for that matter, China.


The fatal flaw of the classic texts of social contract theory is not that they are unable to respond to the devastating criticisms that I mounted against them in a little book 52 years ago. Their fatal flaw is that they have less to do with what goes on in 21st century nations then does an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.


In light of all this, there is nothing for it but to adopt a thoroughly transactional attitude toward contemporary American politics, using it if one can to accomplish ends that one has decided are good but not deluding oneself that any of this has anything to do with legitimacy, liberation, or – in the immortal words of Superman – Truth, Justice, and the American Way.


Tom Hickey said...

I view it in terms of a moment in the historical dialectic in which traditionalism(s), modern liberalism, and postmodernism are engaged in conflict, with the outcome highly uncertain. Viewing previous moments in history, it's just another moment. What makes it "interesting," is that it's quite a mix, the pace of change is fast in comparison with the past. Most importantly, we are caught up in the vortex and find it difficult to get above to observe objectively. I'll leave it at that since books could be written on it but the outcome will only be clear in hindsight, that is, for those e living in the next moment and reflecting on the past.

Those who view matters non-historically — and there are various ways of doing this, e.g., naturalistically or metaphysically — tend to look through a lens of what ought to be. Those that are historically oriented are more phenomenological in approach.

Anyway, this opens the door to many different avenues to approach discussion of the unfolding of a complex and somewhat chaotic phenomenon, such as, what Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Hegel, Marx, ... would say about interpreting current events.

Another Anonymous said...

In a comment on the prior post, I recommended the movie “The Last Duel,” which takes place during the Hundreds Years War in medieval France. I came out of the theater better appreciating what we have here in the U.S., with all its flaws and disappointments. As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

If Donald Trump is re-elected – a prospect which some are warning is not as unlikely as I am inclined to believe – he will use a second term to destroy what is left of our constitutional republic. And the kind of autocratic rule depicted in “The Last Duel” is a meaningful reminder of why we must do everything in our power to prevent his re-election.

s. wallerstein said...

The people, el pueblo, das volk....

The people is over-rated.

The Chilean people were doing ok for themselves. As a result of massive demonstrations including widespread arson and looting, the political elite oked a constitutional convention to replace the 1980 constitution drawn up during the Pinochet dictatorship. Elections for that convention held last May gave an impresssive majority to progressive forces including some radical leftists. What's more, until a few weeks ago the overwhelming favorite for presidential elections, to be held in two weeks, was Gabriel Boric, more or less the equivalent of Bernie Sanders. So far so good...

However, in recent weeks Boric is now tied in most polls to Jose Antonio Kast, a rightwing Catholic, anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, pro free market and above all, tough on crime, on immigration and on violence in the Mapuche regions in the south of Chile. Kast is less of a con-man than Trump, more of a gentleman (he brags that he has never been unfaithful to his wife), but he's not so different.

Many cast doubts on the polls, which may be manipulated to favor Kast, who is undoubtedly the favorite of elites who fear Boric, who allied with the Communist Party wants to raise taxes, to establish a single healthcare insurance plan for all rich or poor, to nationalize the pension system privatized during the Pinochet dictatorship.

An increase in violence in the Mapuche region during the last few weeks seems suspcious to many of us. Are the attacks against schools, against churches, etc., being carried out by radical Mapuche activists or by rightwing paramilitary groups trying to scare voters into electing Kast? I'm sure that the elite will stop at nothing to avoid paying higher taxes. There is already a capital flight in process as investors fear Boric.

I guess that it does not speak well of the people that they vote in May in favor of a leftwing delegates to a constitutional convention and in November in favor of a rightwing candidate. Kast plays on fears of violent crime and of illegal immigration (there is a lot) swamping the nation.

However, only someone like Boric (Gabriel Boric himself is no messiah, but he represents a political project) can begin to heal Chile's wounds going back hundreds of years, a society based on violence, oppression and exploitation which inevitably produce resentment and violent crime and the only way out is to address the roots of these problems as Boric and those who back him plan to.

The election will probably not be decided on November 21, election day, because there are 7 candidates and no one will get a majority. However, the two leading candidates, probably Boric and Kast, will face a run-off a month later.

aaall said...

The evolving iterations of Movement Conservatism are the threat, not Trump. He's useful but not essential as last Tuesday demonstrated. If the Republicans are successful in their current state by state strategy they could install their choice in 2024.

Anyway Prof. Wolff it seems that we now have several drugs that can be used to treat Covid if they are employed in the first few days of the infection. Given that you already have the advantages of being vaccinated as well as having a booster a possible strategy might be to stock up on home tests and test at least a couple/three times a week. This would at least allow timely treatment.

LFC said...

Another Anonymous

If you will forgive a somewhat pedantic point, I don't think "autocratic" is really the right word for medieval monarchs b.c an autocrat is, I think, a more modern phenomenon. Yes, medieval monarchs were not accountable to much of anyone except perhaps small and shifting groups of nobles, but their actual power over their societies, in terms of affecting the daily lives of ordinary people, was rather limited. For example, regular taxation in the French kingdom only dates from the period of the Hundred Years War, and even then didn't affect, I think, a whole lot of people (many peasants paid feudal dues, in crops or otherwise, to landholders, but that's different).

The Hundred Years War itself is a good example of the kind of dynastic conflict that involved various parties, for lack of a better word (English, French, Burgundians), but had its impact on the people at large more via the plunder that armies engaged in than anything else. (The Black Death with which it roughly coincided obviously had a ravaging impact.)

In short, medieval dynasts were not autocrats in the modern sense, though some of them did undertake significant state-building. There is just no comparison between, say, Kim Jong Un's power in North Korea or Putin's in Russia and that of any medieval French king. And even when you get out of the Middle Ages and into, say, the era of Louis XIV, the archetypal absolute monarch, he, as I. Wallerstein pointed out, had less ability to get his decisions actually implemented than a contemporary leader of a democratic polity (or of a non-democratic one).

John Mott said...

I would sincerely appreciate if someone could explain how the current federal government is less authoritarian than the last.

Another Anonymous said...


Yes, I believe the point you are making is rather pedantic. Whether one's style of ruling is autocratic does not turn on the degree of success one ruler had versus another. Whether or not Louis XIV, the Sun King, who stated, "L'etat c'est moie," was as successful as Kim Jong un or Vladimir Putin is (1) debatable and (2) does not detract from describing the Sun King as an autocrat. AS depicted in the movie which I have recommended, The Last Duel, the Count to whom the Matt Damon and Adam Driver characters answered had far more power than either of them, and exercised it arbitrarily and capriciously; the Count, in turn, had significantly less power than his cousin, Charles VI. Whether the appropriate term is autocratic, tyrannical, dogmatic or otherwise seems to me to be irrelevant and beside the point.

LFC said...

I concede it was somewhat beside the point.

@ J. Mott
Trump had authoritarian impulses that Biden lacks. Recall Trump's (absurd) statement to the effect that a President can do anything he wants under the Const. That Trump's impulses were often checked by other branches, sometimes the courts, sometimes Congress, doesn't alter the fact that he had them. Then there is his conduct around Jan.6, and also the conduct for which he was impeached the first time.

Eric said...

Federal appeals court has blocked Biden's vaccine mandate under OSHA for companies with more than 100 employees.

Coincidentally, here is a very spirited argument against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for the general public

Anonymous said...

"Trump had authoritarian impulses that Biden lacks. "

LOL. You guys are lost.


Another Anonymous said...


I am not a lemming.

I am an independently minded wolverine.

LFC said...

Anonymous @11:37 a.m.

I can't write what I'm thinking about you bc it would degrade the level of discourse, but rest assured that I'm thinking it.

My quoted statement, btw,is not intended as praise for Biden, since not wanting to become a dictator is a low bar for a (non-pathological) U.S. President to clear.

aaall said...


I find it interesting that the same Fifth Circuit panel that found the Biden Administration's vaccine mandate raising issues that justify issuing a stay was unable to see the same for the Texas law banning abortion.

One of the factors limiting autocracy in Europe several hundred years ago was a general administrative inefficiency and fractured governance. Luther was in a better place then Hus and Tyndale.

A & AA, we lack both lemmings and wolverines so bears and cougars.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

LFC said...
I concede it was somewhat beside the point.

Basically, it's not beside the point because this definition of the term that draws on historical examples shows a problem. They no longer describe the present and seem kind of skewed.

But it is not only about terms whose historical reference remains empty for the description of the present.

Prof. Wolff writes about the "old classics":
"Their fatal flaw is that they have less to do with what's going on in 21st century nations than an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Prof. Wolff narrows that down to "social contract theories." Others claim that since 1990 the left no longer has the power to put together a strong political theory at all and has to leave the field to the ideology of liberalism. This is perhaps an exaggeration. Nevertheless, I have the impression that the approaches to this stop at a stage of sociological, economic or socio-psychological studies.

The only actuality that I can still imagine with regard to the classical texts of political theory is that; the authors, however convincingly they formulated their writings, perhaps stood in their time just as uncertain, indecisive and sometimes confused before the reality of their present as we do.

Another Anonymous said...

Why the prospects of homo sapiens ever achieving a functional Social Contract and solving such challenges facing mankind as global warming are rather dim:

AA posts a comment about the nature of autocratic governments.

LLC posts a response to AA’s comment taking issue with AA’s comment about the nature of autocracy.

AA responds to LLC’s response and states that it is rather pedantic and beside the point.

LLC responds to AA’s response agreeing that his comment was somewhat beside the point.

Achim Kriechel posts a comment stating that both AA and LLC’s concession are erroneous, and maintains that LLC’s first comment was correct.

s. wallerstein said...


I don't follow you at all. I've been reading an interesting conversation about autocratic governments, on whether the term "autocratic" is appropriate when discussing the Middle Ages or whether it's an anarchronism, etc. The conversation has been polite and rational and in order to deal with global warming and other challenges we need more polite and rational conversations.

Another Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

I assume you are familiar with the old Yiddish joke:

A says X. B says A is correct. C says A is wrong. B says C is also correct. D says to B, they cannot both be right. B says to D, you are also right.

My point is, where there are three opinions, and they all contradict each other and maintain that they are all correct, the prospects of consensus are dim; without consensus, there can be no progress.

s. wallerstein said...

First of all, I'm not sure that there is no consensus on certain points. Everybody would probably agree that Medieval autocracy, even if it can be called "autocracy", is very
different than contemporary autocracy just as Athenian democracy, which we call "democracy" is very different than contemporary democracy in the U.S. or in Denmark.

Second, is it true that without consensus there can be no progress? I believe that if there is a general sense of common goals, there can be progress without consensus about strategies, tactics or even the exact final goal. We could both vote for Bernie Sanders without there being a consensus between us about what a just society would be like or about even what Sanders represents or signifies.

Another Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

God, or whoever, bless your heart. No matter what I say or write, I can always depend on you to disagree and find some nuanced point upon which to quibble.

s. wallerstein said...

That's what friends are for...

Seriously, my favorite philosopher Dario Sztajnszrajber says that if someone always agrees with you, look out!! We're all different people, we have different points of view, different life experiences and if someone just repeats whatever you say, that's not a person, but a sycophantic bot.

Another Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein,

I do not expect my friends to be sycophants, nor do I expect them to always disagree. A happy medium of the two makes for a meaningful friendship, as well as for meaningful dialogue. You seem always to focus on differences (i.e., Athenian democracy is not quite identical to American democracy; the autocracy of Louis XIV was not quite as ruthless as that of Kim Jung Un or Vladimir Putin), rather than finding the commonalities (regardless the degree of ruthlessness, a form of autocratic government in which power is concentrated in the hands of one person, or in a cadre of a few people, is not a pleasant place to be a subordinate). You must have been a joy to work with.

s. wallerstein said...

For the record, I never said anything about the autocracy of Louis XIV nor that of Vladimir Putin.

I haven't participated in this conversation until this afternoon because first of all, I haven't seen the movie in question and I have no idea how autocracy is portrayed there nor even if the portrayal of autocracy in the movie is an accurate depiction of Medieval political life.

Second of all, I'm much less familiar with Medieval history than many of the participants in this blog.

Another Anonymous said...

Then why did you venture to comment?

The entire discussion arose from my comments about the depiction of the French autocratic government during the Hundred Years War as depicted in the movie The Last Duel and my thoughts of relief as I exited the theater that we do not live under such an autocratic regime in the U.S., and my expression of wariness that Trump's objective if he is re-elected, would be to install a form of autocratic government in the U.S.

You acknowledgement that (1) you have not seen the movie: (2) are not familiar with medieval history and the nature of the autocratic governments that existed during that time period (have you read nothing about the War of The Roses, the Tudors or the Holy Roman Empire?), and yet saw fit to submit a comment disagreeing with my opinion about the comments submitted by myself, LFC and AK, demonstrates that you are inclined to submit comments just for the sake of disagreeing with me.

s. wallerstein said...

You like to put people on the witness stand.

When I comment here or elsewhere, I generally disagree. I seldom comment to say that I agree with someone. That's the way I am. It's a personality trait. You might notice that I often disagree with Professor Wolff too.

However, let's say that I submit comments frequently just for the sake of disagreeing with you personally. What's wrong with that? In a certain sense it should flatter you that someone is interested enough in what you have to say that he or she takes the time to disagree with you.

In any case, I'm going to engage in a psychological experiment. For the next few weeks whenever I see a comment of yours, I'm going to signal my agreement. Or at least comment "how interesting!" or something similar. How about that?

Anonymous said...

Another Anonymous: "You must have been a joy to work with."

Was that really necessary?

A different another anonymous said...

Well, it is repeatedly evident on this blog that Another Anonymous (also under whatever pseudonym he has employed in the past) is a joy to attempt a conversation with.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

At least 2 of the dictators of the 20th century, Hitler and Mussolini, came to power without a violent coup. Admittedly, the democratic institutions and democratic practice of the so-called "Weimar Republic" in Germany in 1933 were very fragile. The economic conditions under which the young democracy tried to survive the infancy were catastrophic. The conditions under which the Nazis came to power and the causes of this are the subject of countless treatises. That they were able to establish their dictatorship in free elections and through clever coalitions with willing conservatives and with the help of capital is described just as extensively and credibly.

Can one now learn nothing from history as Hegel meant, or is this opinion also only again a skillful attempt to camouflage the always same strategies and tactics with which power interests from above downward are interspersed?
I think that if you look at the strategy of the unfolding of Nazi rule, the so-called "Gleichschaltung" ( synchronization) of the press, all state institutions, the administrations, courts, police, key positions in industry, cultural life, the army and finally the de facto abolition of parliament, then the modern dictators have learned quite a lot from history.

These are all blueprints that, either fully or partially adapted, are part of the tools of the trade even in the 21st century, at least for those who pursue their goals within democratic constitutions. These people are partly devilishly intelligent because they have learned to play the keyboard of modern media societies perfectly. They always operate on the threshold between legality and constitutional violation, take two steps to the other side and then, after the public's cry of pain, take one step back. They do not fight down the entire democratic constitution of a state, but gradually distill the elements that are essential for the process of a democratic order. Ultimately, they work to turn a functioning democracy into a perfect theatrical stage in front of which they can perform the legitimacy of their power. Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping only have to smile.

LFC said...

This relates to the previous thread but I thought I'd post it here, bc that other thread has gotten rather long.

Re Rawls and Mills: there's a piece at Daily Nous that links to a recent journal article discussing Rawls's opposition to student deferments from the Vietnam draft. Rawls viewed the deferments as, in effect, a reflection of structural racism. Judging by the abstract (the full text is also available w.o paywall), the article, by B. Terry, defends Rawls vs C. Mills' arguments but criticizes Rawls on other scores. (Forrester also has a discussion of Rawls's views on the draft in In the Shadow of Justice.)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps of interest to those debating some fine points in this thread:

Eric said...

link here:

Even if we accept that the reason Rawls excised the racial injustice arguments from his draft of the motion that was put before the Harvard faculty was to appease the bigot Banfield, that does nothing to explain why the rest of his work is silent on racial injustice, as Mills charges.

LFC said...

I'm impressed that you actually read the linked article, or at least went through it. (That's more than I did.)

I'm not sure the rest of Rawls's work is silent on racial injustice, but I have no particular interest in defending Rawls against Mills. I'm reluctant to make a judgment one way or the other about a book, namely Mills's The Racial Contract, that I haven't read. For now I'll leave it at that.

LFC said...

A.K. @5:53 a.m.

Mussolini came to power through something just short of a coup -- see the March on Rome.