My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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."

Total Pageviews

Sunday, October 16, 2022


Many years ago, I was invited to participate in a symposium at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, on the subject of the political responsibilities of intellectuals. This was part of a series of symposia open to the public, and we are asked to present talks that would be accessible and interesting to a non-academic audience. The other two participants were Martin Jay, a sociologist who had written a very valuable book on the Frankfurt School for Social Research, the famous pre-war gathering of left intellectuals that included Horkeimer, Adorno, Fromm, Benjamin, and Marcuse, and a very well-known UMass Comparative Literature scholar [whose name I am crushed to discover I cannot recall -- a real senior moment], and myself.

I took the assignment seriously, and wrote a rather pedestrian, but earnest, talk on the responsibilities of progressive intellectuals. It was moderately well received, I guess, but at least it was entirely comprehensible. Martin Jay chose to speak on images of the mirror in nineteenth century French literature, a subject obscure even in the most recherche of circles, in impenetrable to the good citizens of Lexington who had gathered for the event. The third chap, not to be outdone, delivered a talk on Heidegger's essay on technology that I found completely incomprehensible, to put it as delicately as I can.

I was, I must confess, genuinely offended by the performance of my colleagues, so when it came time for those of us on the dais to engage in edifying intellectual intercourse, before throwing things open to the audience for questions, I asked each of them where he stood on the subject of the unionization of professors. I should explain that the UMass faculty had recently been unionized, in an effort that I had very strongly supported. The two of them stumbled over one another fleeing from the question. It had obviously never occurred to either of them that the political obligations of ostensibly left-wing intellectuals had anything at all to do with unions, and most certainly not with the unionization of professors, which they clearly considered infra dignitate.


Why Should I Be Political

 and How?

Remarks to be delivered


The University of Kentucky

November 11, 1989

Professors Natter and Schatzki have gathered us here today to explore the question “whether citizens have a responsibility to work for the betterment of their society and what forms such activity should take.” For reasons that will become apparent shortly, I prefer to reconstrue this question in a rather more subjective manner, asking not in an impersonal and putatively objective voice whether citizens have this or that responsibility, but rather, simply and directly, why I should be political.

I understand politics to be the attempt to influence decisions on matters of major social importance. That definition may seem, on the surface, simple enough, but if you will reflect on it for a bit, you will realize that it is fraught with ambiguities - that, indeed, it is what the philosopher Charles Stevenson once called a "persuasive definition" - an attempt to get you to think differently about a familiar subject by the seemingly innocent device of defining a word.

Politics is the attempt to influence decisions on matters of major social importance. What is to count as a matter of major social importance? To Karl Marx - and to most of us today - how the ownership and control of the means of production are organized would count as a matter of the very greatest social importance. But to Jesus, who counseled us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's, economic arrangements were of no importance whatsoever. To many Americans, whether I engage in homosexual practices is a matter of such overriding social importance that they would like the state to intrude even into my bedroom to make sure I am not doing so. Many other Americans consider such a matter to be of no social importance at all, but merely a matter of private importance to myself and my sexual partners. And - somewhat paradoxically - some of those people who insist that private sexual practices ought to be beyond the reach of politics nevertheless also insist that the national birthrate - which is, after all, merely a statistical reflection of those practices - is very much a matter of major social importance, and therefore an appropriate object of political debate.

Secondly, politics, as I have defined it, concerns decisions taken not only by the state - by Governors, Presidents, Senators, School Committee Members, Judges, and so forth - but also, and sometimes most importantly, by persons ordinarily thought of as private parties, such as corporation executives, presidents of private colleges or universities, Roman Catholic bishops, hospital administrators, and union officials.

Finally, the word "influence" in my definition covers a multitude of means - voting, picketing, letter-writing, gun-running, running for office, raising money, laundering money, stuffing envelopes, setting bombs, and all the countless other actions that might, in one way or another, shape or alter decisions concerning matters of major social importance. All of these means are available to me, and one of the most important political decisions I must make is which of them, if any, to adopt.

Should I be political? Should I try, somehow, to influence decisions on matters of major social importance? Immediately as I ask that question, I find myself confronted, assaulted, over- whelmed by a babel of conflicting advice, exhortations, demands, pleas. Candidates bid for my vote, pressure groups dun me for contributions, political commentators pluck at my sleeve, trying to focus my attention on famines and floods, high crimes and misdemeanors, both foreign and domestic. On every hand, I am told that the failure to commit myself to this cause or that marks me as heartless, mindless, immoral, Godless, or - what is, if possible, worse - a bad citizen. I even find some distinguished American political scientists seriously propounding the extraordinary claim that broad popular involvement in politics is a sign of social disorder, and that low voter turnouts, public apathy, and the decline of active citizenship merely demonstrate how near to perfection the American political system has become. [Those of you who do not earn your living in the academy may think I am exaggerating, but it really is true, I promise you, that declining participation in electoral politics is held up my some of the most distinguished and influential members of the political science profession as evidence of the health of the American political system!]

Confronted with this confusion of advice, thoughtful people not unnaturally search for some objective, impartial standpoint, above the debate and distanced from the clamor of competing claims, from which they can survey the public realm and discover the universal principles to which reasonable men and women may appeal. This an old longing, one which motivated such ancient philosophers as Plato, as well as more modern thinkers. Here, for example, is a famous passage by the Roman philosopher Lucretius from a long philosophical poem entitled ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, written in the middle of the first century before the birth of Christ. The prose translation is by H. A. J. Munro, from the opening lines of Book II:

It is sweet, when on the great sea the winds trouble its waters, to behold from land another's deep distress; not that it is a pleasure and delight that any should be afflicted, but because it is sweet to see from what evils you are yourself exempt. It is sweet also to look upon the mighty struggles of war arrayed along the plains without sharing yourself in the danger. But nothing is more welcome than to hold the lofty and serene positions well fortified by the learning of the wise, from which you may look down upon others and see them wandering all abroad and going astray in their search for the path of life ...

Lucretius' longing to remove himself high above the crowd is echoed by many twentieth century ethical and political theorists, particularly in the American tradition. Roderick Firth and Kurt Baier, for example, two distinguished Professors of Philosophy of whom you probably have not heard, both undertook to identify a standpoint from which the individual could achieve ethical objectivity - for Firth, a position from which one could be, in his words, "an ideal observer," for Baier, a "moral point of view." More recently, in the most widely discussed work of American political theory of this century, Harvard Professor John Rawls makes just such a position of neutrality and objectivity - what he calls "the original position" - the centerpiece of his theory of justice.

It is not difficult to understand this two millennium old quest for the elevated position from which to achieve objectivity, universality, and impartiality. For conscientious individuals, one of the most distressing experiences of political life is to find oneself confronted by honorable, thoughtful, committed men and women whose positions on nuclear deterrence, taxes, abortion, or affirmative action are diametrically opposed to one's own. It is easy enough, morally speaking, to deal with the existence of crooks, scoundrels, and self-servers. But when those on the other side of the line are as conscientious and concerned as I would like myself to be, it is hard to be sure that I am right. Quite naturally, I cast about for some way of looking at disputed issues of public importance which can win assent from those on all sides of the issues. I look for a moral point of view, an original position, a protected spot, high above the fray, from which I and other reasonable men and women can view the issues spread out before us and come to some common agreement.

It is, I say, a natural desire. But nevertheless, it is doomed to frustration, for there is no objective standpoint, no moral point of view, nor ought there to be. The very metaphors by which we express the desire betray its inherent impossibility. A standpoint, literally, is somewhere one stands. A point of view, likewise, is a place from which to view a scene. As any student of painting learns when studying perspective, every standpoint or point of view reveals a scene from some particular angle, in some particular light, and hence with some built-in bias or slant. How objects look depends on where I stand when I view them. Mt. Rushmore looks one way from below at a distance of two miles, and quite differently standing on Washington's nose. The Mall in Washington looked one way if you were in the midst of the huge throng straining to hear Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech; it looked quite differently to King himself, standing on the podium; and it had an entirely different appearance again to a casual passerby who happened to catch sight of the event while going about her business in the city that day. The storming of the Bastille looked one way to a member of the crowd, and another way to the Governor of the Bastille, M. de Launey.

But surely there are some standpoints that are better, more objective than others! If we wish to understand a battle, for example, are we not better off high on a hill overlooking the struggle, from which vantage point we can observe the movements of troops, the overall shape of the event, its onset, development, and outcome?

Not at all, as the great Russian novelist Tolstoy deliberately undertakes to show us in one of the best-known scenes of his monumental novel, WAR AND PEACE. At the battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812, as Napoleon sits astride his horse on a hill, straining to make out the movement of troops in the smoke and haze below, the hero of the novel, Pierre, wanders on the battle- field, separated from his unit and lost. As Tolstoy makes clear (he actually appended a lengthy philosophical Epilogue to the novel to drive the point home), Napoleon and Pierre, each in his own way, has a perspective on the battle which is both accurate and inescapably perspectival. Pierre can smell, hear, touch, and see the explosions, the wounds, the cries of pain - his own confusion captures perfectly the chaos of the battle at the level of the individual soldier. Napoleon has some grasp of the general movement of troops, which is denied to Pierre, but only at the cost of losing all direct and sensory knowledge of the battle as an immediate human experience. Nor can we overcome the partiality of these viewpoints by a calm, synoptic synthesis achieved after the battle is over, for as Tolstoy delights in telling us, the subsequent official accounts of the Battle of Borodino, assembled and created out of the many individual reports from both officers and private soldiers, bear only a glancing relationship to any of the realities of the battle itself.

A political point of view is inherently, unavoidably, quite properly perspectival. It is not only the enthusiasts, the activists, the committed who have a slant on public affairs. So too do those citizens who prefer to remain private, removed from political life, inactive. Exactly the same is true of the many men and women who put themselves forward as experts, and would have you believe that they view public affairs purely objectively, as neutral advisors. Economists, Eastern Europeanists, Public Health professionals, defense intellectuals, drug czars, historians of race relations - each of them, necessarily and quite appropriately, has some standpoint, some point of view, from which he or she judges matters of major social importance.

Now, politics, as I have said, is the attempt to influence decisions on matters of major social importance. But to what end? In the service of what goal, end, ideal, or principle is the attempt made? The simple answer, universally true, is: in the service of some interest. Notice, I do not say, in the service of self-interest, for it is perfectly possible to enter into politics to advance interests which are not, in any ordinary sense, self-interests. I can become political to protect my own rights, or to protect the rights of others, to put bread on my table, or to share my bread with those less well-off, to help my country dominate other weaker nations, or to help those countries throw off my own nation's domination. There is no end to the interests that can be served by collective social action, and any of them can be the goal at which I am by becoming political, but always, necessarily, when I become political, it is to advance some interest or other.

And clearly, whether a standpoint, a point of view, a slant on public affairs is a good one or not will depend entirely on what interests it is meant to serve. If I am an historian writing an account of Napoleon's Russian campaign, and my interest is in sketching the broad shape of the movement of forces, then I will want to read the reports submitted to Napoleon by his generals. But if my interest is in understanding what it was like to live through the experience of early nineteenth century warfare, then Pierre's account will be much more valuable to me.

In a more contemporary vein, if I am principally interested in bringing it about that all races and ethnic groups are proportionately represented in the better paying jobs of the corporate world, then I will focus on such things as hiring practices, admissions requirements to elite Business Schools, and the like. But if I want to flatten the extremely steep pyramid of jobs and salaries in America, which gives to those near the top rewards ten or twenty or thirty times as great as those near the bottom, then I will look less at how young men and women are distributed up and down the pyramid, and more at how the pyramid itself is created and reproduced.

How then should I decide what interests to pursue when I enter the public realm? What viewpoint ought I to take? Where should I choose to stand in the American public world? There is only one possible answer, in my judgment. You must stand with those men and women with whom you have chosen to make common cause, and with them, through debate, discussion, even argument, you must together decide what your true interests are, and how best to advance them. To put in a single word the entire substance of my remarks today, the essence of political action is solidarity.

There is nothing new in this message, heaven knows. Indeed, as the great Danish existentialist S¢ren Kierkegaard pointed out, since the essence of the ethical life is repetition, those who seek for moral truth will, insofar as they are successful, merely repeat what has been said before. Nevertheless, so much of academic political philosophy is a striving for objectivity, impartiality, the neutral moral point of view, it is well worth repeating this old truth.

All of us, unavoidably, are social creatures. Our personalities are formed by the identification with, and internalization of, significant others, in such a way that the norms, roles, patterns of sublimation and organization of instinctual energies, even the structures of reason, of our society are embedded in our developing selves. The very shape of our desires emerges from such a socio-historical matrix. By the time we reach an age at which we can ask ourselves, How shall I be political?, we are already fully situated, historically, socially, psychologically. My answer to the question before us will therefore be inevitably perspectival, representing as it does the set of identifications I have made, the interests I have taken as my own, the standpoint or point of view I have adopted. To repeat once again the message of the opening portion of my remarks: this subjectivity is not a defect of my politics, it is a simple consequence of my humanity. Anyone who denies this subjectivity, and puts himself or herself forward as "objective" is either confused or deliberately misleading you.

            So, here goes. Why should I be political, and how?

There are three great polarities in contemporary American society which determine what your life will be like. They are, whether you are a man or a woman, whether you are Black or White, and whether you are poor or rich. Sex, Race, and Class, and the greatest of these is class. The most important single fact about anyone in America is how much money he or she has. If you are rich, you will live longer, eat better, suffer fewer and less debilitating diseases, recover more quickly and successfully from the inevitable adversities and setbacks of life, realize your potential to a greater degree, be in a better position to protect your children from the threats and dangers of life, and, at the end of the road, finish your life with greater dignity and humanity. If you are poor, you will be denied decent medical care, have opportunities for job advancement closed off rather than opened up, live in slum housing, eat badly, and be harassed by the police. You will be extremely vulnerable to even a small life crisis. The loss of a job may drive you into the ranks of the homeless, an illness may put you on welfare.

These statements are, of course, statistical generalizations. There are happy men and women of modest means, and miser- able men and women of unimaginable wealth. But however comforting we may find these anecdotal anomalies, the generalizations remain indisputably true. What is more, at the extremes of poverty in America, life may be cursed from its very inception. One thousand babies are born each day in this country to drug addicted mothers. It will not surprise you to learn that very few of those babies are born to the affluent.

All of you are perfectly well aware of the truth of what I have just said. But you may not be aware of just how many people in America are poor or living on very modest incomes, and how few, proportionately speaking, are well-off. The mass media, most notably television, are, in this as in so many other matters, a very misleading guide. Television responds in the first instance to advertisers, and advertisers are interested only in people with disposable income that is not already completely committed to food, clothing, and shelter. Hence, television shows us an imaginary world which is at best only tangentially related to reality. The Huxtables are not, repeat not, a typical African-American family.

Let me give you a few statistics, mixed with some illustrative family sketches, to put the reality of the American income pyramid in perspective. When economists measure income distribution, one device they use is something they call "income fifths." The idea is this: imagine that you have made a list of all 65 million family households in the United States [that is just families - there are another 32 million individuals living alone, but we will get to them in a minute.] The list starts, at the top, with the household that took in the most money this year, followed by the household that took in the second largest amount of money, the third largest amount, all the way down to the household with the smallest income.

Start counting from the top and draw a line at the point where you have counted one-fifth of the names, which is 13 million households down the list. Take a look at how much money that cut-off household is making. That is the lower limit of the upper fifth. All the households above the line took in more than that much. Continue down the list, marking the cut-off house- holds after each 13 million households. The result is a picture of the spread of income. Once you have made up this list, you can take any family - including your own - figure out how much that family took in, and then locate it in the top fifth, the second fifth, the middle fifth, the fourth fifth, or the bottom fifth.

Now let's try some experiments. I am going to invent some typical American families, and then we will see where they are on the list of households. The figures I am going to use come from 1987, but not much has changed since then, since inflation has not been very steep.

My first imaginary family consists of a Professor at the University of Massachusetts, where I teach, and his wife, who has a Master's degree and teaches Biology at Amherst Regional High School. They have two children: a seventeen year old son who works six hours a week during the school year at the MacDonald's on Route 9, and full time during the summer months; and a thirteen year old daughter, who babysits next door once a week. A nice, solid, middle-class family, wouldn't you say? Not poor, certainly. Not even hard up. But scarcely rich. They are going to have a very difficult time coming up with the $20,000 a year per child that schools like Amherst College and Harvard cost. Indeed, they won't even find it all that easy to pay the $5,000 to $7,000 that state colleges and universities cost.

Will it surprise you to learn that this typical middle-class American family is actually in the richest 5% of all the households in America? Not the top one-fifth, but the top one- twentieth! How can this be? Well, the cut-off point for the top 5% is $86,300. Any family making more than that amount is better off than 95% of all the families in the United States. Now, my hypothetical Professor makes $50,000 a year - a good salary, but not at all unusual for a senior Professor at a big state university. His wife makes $32,709 - the maximum salary for a High School teacher with a master's degree, in Amherst. The son earns $3200 a year at MacDonald's, and the daughter makes $400 a year baby-sitting. Add it up. It totals $86,709.

Right now, Members of Congress are paid salaries that place in the top 5% of all American households, quite apart from whether they earn speaking fees, or have spouses who work. The proposal to raise their salaries by forty, or sixty, or one hundred percent, is simply a proposal to jump them into the top 1% of American households. When we are told that we must raise Congressional salaries in order to get good people to run for office, we are really being told that only the wealthiest five percent in the country have the ability to serve in the government, for the present salary would be a pay raise for everyone in the other 95%!

Here is another imaginary family: a construction worker makes the average US wage for all construction workers - $12.15 an hour - but he has a good year, managing to keep employed for 50 weeks, with two weeks of vacation around Christmas time. His wife works as a waitress at the diner downtown. She averages $6 an hour in salary and tips, and also puts in a full year. If he gets two Saturdays of weekend overtime at time and a half, their household will just make it into the second fifth. In other words, they will be better off than 60% of all the households in the United States. By any reasonable statistical classification, they must be called upper middle class. A construction worker and a waitress, upper middle class? Where are all the Yuppies, the hotshot lawyers and account executives with their Gucci shoes and power lunches, flying off to Acapulco or Tibet for weekend holidays? Well, the answer is simple: they exist, and in large numbers too, inasmuch as there 250 million people in America. But in percentage terms, they are a tiny minority of a tiny minority. Right now, young men and women graduating from Harvard Law School start at salaries that put them in the top 5% of all households. And that is just where they start.

One more family. A grade school dropout and his wife and children live on the poverty wages they make at their minimum wage, dead-end, $3.35/hr jobs. He sweeps up and runs errands at a downtown restaurant, she does domestic labor. Both of them work eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, and half a day on Saturday. Surely they must be right at the bottom of the social heap, wouldn't you say?

Not a bit of it. Their $14,740 combined earnings makes their family better off than 13 million other families in this great country. They are actually at the bottom of the fourth fifth, with fully one-fifth of all households below them.

When we turn to the figures for Black households, the situation, not surprisingly, is drastically worse. If the construction worker and his wife are Black, their $36,600 will put them in the top 20% of all Black families, not the top 40%. If the minimum wage couple are Black, then they are better off than roughly 45% of all Black households.

As for individuals living alone, the situation is, as we might expect, much much worse. All three of my imaginary families, you may have noticed, are two-income families. The only way to get ahead in America today, if you aren't one of the favored few, is to be part of a household that sends two or more wage-earners into the job market. For example: if the UMass Professor walks out on his wife after the children go to college, leaving her to fend for herself, her salary of $32,709 will place her in about the top 10%of all single-person households. As for the Professor, who walks away with his $50,000 salary, living alone, he will be among the 2 or 3 percent best off single individuals in the entire United States.

Enough numbers for the moment. I want to make four points about these statistics:

First, America is not nearly so well off as we tend to think. The income needed to put a family in the top 5%, or the top 20%, or the top 40% is much lower than our informal impressions lead us to expect, which is just another way of saying that most people have much less money than we might suppose. I assume you have been privately comparing your own family income with these figures as I have been going along. If you are in the category of the UMass professor and his wife, then you must start thinking of yourself as among the rich, not the middle class. And if you are at the other end, with the floor sweeper and his wife, it may cheer you up some to realize that you have a very great deal of company down there. Indeed, you may even start to think that there are enough of you to make a difference in the politics of this country, if you can only organize. But more of that later.

Second, the best, indeed for most people the only, way for a family to earn an income that we would generally consider adequate for a decent life is to have several wage earners. Married women do not go into the labor market to fulfill their human potential, or to amuse themselves, or to seek rewarding careers, any more than men do. They get jobs to help buy food, pay the rent, and meet medical bills.

Third, if you are Black, things are much worse. And among the ranks of single persons, although I have not given you the statistics, it is of course much worse if you are a woman than if you are a man.

Finally: everyone in America is somewhere on this income pyramid, and where you are, whether you are down at the bottom, or in the middle, or perched near the top, will determine how America looks to you. Like Napoleon on the hill or Pierre down in the smoke and confusion of the battlefield, your perspective on your own life and the life of your nation must necessarily be conditioned by where you stand.

Thus far, I have been talking about where people are located on the pyramid of household income, but I have said nothing about why the distribution has the shape it does, nor have we taken a look at how the pyramid has been changing during the twentieth century. At this point, I am afraid, I shall be forced to part company with the philosopher, economist, and social critic who is my principal inspiration in these matters, Karl Marx. I bow to no one in my admiration for Marx's writings, but on this matter of the pyramidal distribution of income, he is positively misleading.

Marx, as I am sure you know, argued that the fundamental split in a capitalist society is between capitalists and workers - between those who own the means of production, and those who do not. In Marx's own day, especially in the English economy which was his primary object of study, things were rapidly becoming polarized between a wealthy capitalist class, whose income came from the profits on its capital holdings, and a more and more homogeneous class of semi-skilled industrial workers whose wages were held very close to subsistence by competition and the pressure from a vast reserve army of the unemployed. So to Marx, it seemed clear that to be wealthy, you had to own capital, while to be a wage-earner was to be consigned to something near poverty.

But the situation in America today is quite different. To be sure, there is an enormous quantity of capital, privately owned, and much of the profits it generates goes into the pockets of wealthy individuals - the Donald Trumps of this world. But our UMass professor and his wife don't own any capital [save their own home, which is a separate matter], and yet they are among the richest 5% of American households.

Indeed, it will scarcely surprise you that most of household income comes from wages and salaries, not from profits. A few of those salaries are high, statistically speaking, while most are middling or low. But a half-million a year corporate executive is still salaried, and so is a high-paid professor, a partner in a big law firm, or a network news commentator. Where you are on the pyramid is determined, first and foremost, by how much you earn at your job.

Now, where you personally, individually, land on the pyramid depends on a number of things about you: your level of education, your skin color, your sex, even sheer luck. But the shape of the pyramid as a whole is quite independent of those factors. The shape of the pyramid is determined by the structure of jobs and associated pay in the economy as a whole. You may get to the top by graduating from Harvard Law School, but if you do, you will simply squeeze out someone else who also is trying to get to the top. Right now, a college degree is a ticket to the middle or upper middle class. When my father was a young man, just after World War I, a high school degree was the ticket that got you into the upper reaches of the pyramid. The way things are going, post-graduate degrees may be needed before long just to keep from falling to the lower stories of the pyramid. But the pyramid itself is quite unaffected by how much education young people accumulate. Hence, keeping everyone in school for another four years won't make this country any more equal, for it won't flatten the pyramid one bit. When I did my basic training in the Army, back in 1957, all the men in my training company had college degrees. So when the sergeant wanted to find someone to put in charge of the latrine cleaning squad, he chose me, because I already had a Ph.D.

If you believe, as I do, that the shape of the American pyramid is an absolute scandal - that it is profoundly unfair for professors to make five times as much as day laborers and doctors ten times as much as secretaries - you mustn't fool yourself that all can be made well with more education or job training. What is needed is some way to flatten the pyramid, so that the re- wards, in real terms, going to those at the bottom are raised, even if it means that what goes to the top must be reduced.

But we haven't yet said anything about how our American pyramid is changing over time. Perhaps forces are already at work flattening the pyramid, so that if we just allow technological development to run its course, we shall see America become a less and less unequal place. some economists are beginning to argue, for example, that at the cutting edge of development, in such industries as computers, robotics, and biotechnology, the old steeply pyramidal reward structure of such industries as steel and automobiles is giving way to a new more egalitarian structure, in which groups of workers of roughly equal technical level join in cooperative modules to create complex products for roughly equal wages.

What do we find when we look backwards over the past seventy or eighty years? Economists have two ways of measuring the pyramid. One is to translate everything into constant dollars, to correct for inflation, and then see how those cut-off numbers at the one-fifth breaks are changing. The other is to figure out, in percentage terms, what share of the total pie is going to each income fifth. In 1987, for example, the top fifth of the house- hold list gathered in about 44% of the total income that went to all households. The fourth fifth received about 24%. The lowest fifth received only 4.6%

We would expect that as we look back over this century, we would find that things have gotten more and more equal - flatter and flatter - even though the figures I just gave you don't suggest that things are very equal at all. After all, in this century America has gone from a primarily agricultural to a primarily industrial to a primarily service economy. We have gone from a nation in which there was a sharp distinction between rural and urban life to a modern society in which people live just about the same in country or city. Just since World War II, the percentage of young adults with college degrees has tripled.

And yet, we would be wrong. Believe it or not, if we go all the way back to 1910, we find that the shape of the pyramid has changed scarcely at all. The proportion of the pie going to each fifth has remained virtually unchanged, except that those at the very bottom are getting a much smaller share now than they did in 1910. Where has it gone? To those at the very top.

This is a very simple story I have been telling you - one image, the pyramid, and a few numbers to indicate its shape. But simple though it is, it tells the whole story about America. America is now, as it always has been, the Land of Opportunity, if by that we mean a land in which selected individuals can, by hard work, self-sacrifice, and luck, clamber up the pyramid high enough to get some good food, clean air, and a comfortable home. This is also a land of tremendous inequality, in which those who make it to the top leave behind scores of millions who are condemned to poor food, dirty air, and a slum apartment at best.

Wherever you stand, you have a choice to make, one that will determine the fundamental shape of your politics. You can identify yourself with those below you on the pyramid, and commit yourself to raising up their level, or you can identify with those above you on the pyramid, and spend your time and energy keeping those below you down. Oh, the politicians won't use quite that language, of course. We in America have ways of veiling the ugly truths of life, so that they look prettier. But it doesn't take very sharp eyes to see through the pink clouds. If you vote for a reduction in the capital gains tax, you have aligned yourself with those at the tip of the pyramid, against everyone in the middle and at the bottom. If you vote against a rise in the minimum wage, you are turning your backs on those at the very bottom - or, more accurately, putting your foot on their necks. When the legislators in my home state of Massachusetts cut the appropriation for the state university, and hand out scholarships to the private colleges, they are saying, quite simply: if you are lower down on the pyramid, stay there. Don't try to climb up.

You really do have a choice. There are no arguments that can prove to you that you should opt for equality rather than inequality. No one can demonstrate that your solidarity should be with the poor and those of modest means, rather than with the rich or powerful. [The very first year of my teaching career, when I was still a graduate student teaching assistant, I had an ambitious, amoral young student at Harvard whose sole desire was to become a partner in a Wall Street firm and make $100,000 a year - a sum which, back then in 1955, was the equivalent of about $425,000 today. He wrote a beautiful essay on the theme of justice in Plato's REPUBLIC, for he was quite bright, and had gone to an elegant prep school. But nothing I said could dissuade him from his selfish, blinkered course, and by now, I imagine he has realized his dream.

Suppose that, once you hear this story, you decide that you want to join hands with those below to raise the level of the bottom of the pyramid, rather than doing what you can to keep the pyramid steep and unequal. How can you go about it? Since politics is the attempt to influence decisions on matters of major social importance, and since the shape of the pyramid is the most important matter about which any decisions are made, I am really asking, How can you be political?

Debates among political activists, especially on the left, are frequently based on the mistaken notion that politics is something like a military raid, in which split second timing and just the right deployment of forces is essential to success. That may be true when one is planning a coup to depose a dictator - the recent fiasco in Panama suggests that something more in the way of sand table planning might have helped the anti-Noriega forces. But in a large popular democracy like the United States, the military metaphor is quite inappropriate. I like to think of broad-scale social change as having something more of the character of a rock slide or avalanche. Thousands of pebbles, rocks, and tree stumps rolling, tumbling, falling, sliding down a hill- side. Each one makes a small contribution to the whole, but no one rock is indispensable, not even any of the large boulders, and what really matters is that they are all sliding in roughly the same direction.

That is what politics is like in this country. Every successful movement - the anti-war movement in the '60s and early 70's, the pro-choice movement gathering momentum right now - consists of literally millions of men, women, and children. Some of them write speeches, some carry signs. Some collect money, some answer telephones, some hand out leaflets, some run for public office. Every one of them is doing something useful - each is rolling down the right side of the hill - but none of them, not even the highly visible leaders, makes more than a small contribution to the entire effort.

Once you have decided which side you are on - who you are going to join hands with in solidarity, whether you are going to reach down the pyramid or up - the fundamental rule of politics is simply to find something to do in the movement that you really enjoy, and do it. If you like to answer the telephone but hate to hand out leaflets, then volunteer for the phone bank. If you are good at doing library research, do that. If you feel more comfortable out on the streets, chanting slogans and protesting injustice, then leave the polite insider committee work to some- one who feels uncomfortable as a protester. But whatever you like to do, do something. At the very least, vote for the best candidate, and try to get at least one other person to do so as well. Which candidate? You will have to decide that. My rule is a simple one: find the person farthest to the left, and vote for him or her. You may make some mistakes that way, but not many, and you will almost certainly be voting to flatten the pyramid, which is, after all, what really counts.

What is the rationale for this rule? Two things: first of all, if you don't find a form of political activity that you really enjoy, you won't stick with it, and politics is like exercise - it only works if you do it regularly. Secondly, no matter what you find to do, you can be sure that it is needed. There is no one best way of being political, and no end of contributions that the movement for social equality really needs. Intellectuals especially like to imagine that they can discover the critical pressure point, the maximally effective act that will transform society, but they are fooling themselves. They are just pebbles, like the rest of us, rolling down the hill.

Let me conclude my remarks, and illustrate all the things I have said today, by telling you briefly of my own current involvement in politics. I have chosen to conclude on a note that is both anecdotal and autobiographical for a reason. Despite all the pretensions of political theory, politics is, in the end, about people, individuals whose motives are as various as their life situations. The last thing I could possibly want is for you to imitate me, any more than I would try to imitate someone else. Each of you must find your own particular way of being political.

For the past 15 months, I have spent virtually all my spare time, and a good deal that I could not spare, running an anti- apartheid organization called Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni/ ae Against Apartheid. Although I have been involved, one way or another, in politics all my life, this is the first time I have done any serious political organizing. As the Executive Director of the organization, I raise money, write letters, make up mailing lists, do research, stuff envelopes, lick stamps, enter data on a computer, and generally perform all the functions you might expect of a one-person office staff with no assistants and precious little money in the till. Last academic year, I raised $75,000 and managed to get Archbishop Desmond Tutu elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a pro-divestment, anti-apartheid petition candidacy. The entire effort of the organization, which has been in existence now for four and a half years, is devoted to trying to persuade Harvard to sell its shares in companies doing business in South Africa, as a way of publically condemning the apartheid regime and supporting the movement within South Africa for change.

Our organization consumes the time and energies of dozens of Harvard graduates, who donate anything from a few hours to many days in the effort. I imagine I have spent thirty or more hours a week as Executive Director since I took the job over in September of 1988. Now, a little reflection will make it obvious to you that HRAAA, as we call ourselves, is not exactly on the cutting edge of the anti-apartheid struggle. Even if we succeed, which frankly I think is unlikely, the news that Harvard has divested will only be a small pebble in the landslide. The big events - the mass demonstrations, the release of Walter Sisulu and his ANC compatriots, the pending release of Nelson Mandela - are boulders by comparison. So what keeps me going, day after day, and month after month, composing fund-raising letters, answering the mail, fussing with my database, sending out mailings?

I like it. That is the long and the short of it. I enjoy doing it. I don't do it because I have concluded, after sophisticated analysis, that getting Harvard to divest is the strategically critical maneuver in the war against apartheid. Quite to the contrary, I am convinced it is no more than a marginal skirmish. But it is part of the war, and I enjoy it, and that is sufficient justification.

Why do I like it? Well, the reasons are complex, and to some extent not entirely honorable, as is always the case. In part, doing this sort of work is a sort of homage to my mother, who was an enormously efficient secretary during her working life. Raising money for HRAAA is my version of raising money for Hadassah, which, since I am an atheist, holds no appeal for me. Beating up on Harvard is a not very subtly sublimated form of attack on authority, which is to say my father. Running HRAAA gives me an excuse for not writing books, which, after thirty years, is beginning to bore me. What is more, I get a kick out of mastering the various computer skills I need to manage an organization, put out its mailings, and keep its books.

Most important of all, this political involvement is my way of being the sort of father I hope my two sons will be proud of. One of my biggest sources of embarrassment, not to say shame, is that I was never arrested in demonstrations in the sixties. Getting myself arrested in an anti-apartheid demonstration at Harvard enabled me to hold up my head before my sons.

Everyone has feelings and motives like these - not the same ones of course, but personal fears, phobias, desires, and scores to settle which can be used to fuel political activity. Don't be ashamed of them. Tap them, use them, put them to work, and become a pebble rolling down the right side of the hill.







aaall said...

"My rule is a simple one: find the person farthest to the left, and vote for him or her."

Post Gingrich the rule s/b: Vote for the left most electable candidate in the the Democratic primary and always vote for the Democrat in the general.

A good talk. Wages decoupled from productivity in the early 1970s so double digit differences are now triple.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite right. A better rule than mine.

Old Mole said...

So, vote Biden not Bernie, vote Hilary not Bernie? Which side of the hill are we on?
Beautiful essay, Bob.

Ahmed Fares said...

What is needed is some way to flatten the pyramid, so that the re- wards, in real terms, going to those at the bottom are raised, even if it means that what goes to the top must be reduced.

Sorry, but this is not even remotely possible, this because of the differing marginal propensities to consume. First, a quote from Warren Buffett:

“I don't have a problem with guilt about money. The way I see it is that my money represents an enormous number of claim checks on society. It's like I have these little pieces of paper that I can turn into consumption. If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the GDP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing. I don't do that though. I don't use very many of those claim checks. There's nothing material I want very much. And I'm going to give virtually all of those claim checks to charity when my wife and I die.” —Warren Buffett

The rule is that for someone to consume more in society, someone else has to consume less. Warren Buffett lives a frugal lifestyle and consumes very little. If the government were to tax Warren Buffett an additional billion dollars, his consumption would not change. If the government then spent that billion dollars to help the poor, aggregate demand would rise by about a billion dollars. The central bank would then step in and clobber the poor with higher interest rates, sending those dollars right back to Buffett, where they would be safe and not contribute to inflation. We play this game where we give the poor money with one hand and take it away with the other. Interest rate rises are a stealth tax on the poor.

What fiscal policy giveth, monetary policy taketh away.

While it's true that wealth and income inequality are rising, consumption inequality is falling. I should note that wealth matters more for security and a feeling of well-being, so as not to distract from that. Having said that, there isn't much difference in how the rich and others live. Things that were once considered luxuries of the rich are now commonplace in middle class houses. Dishwashers, air conditioning, etc.

Repeat after me: Wealth is not income and income is not consumption

A sample quote from the above article. I would encourage you to read the whole article.

It is a wrong belief that there should be one and only one measure that would give us the answer who is poor and who is rich. The three welfare aggregates (wealth, income and consumption) are related but they are not the same. (And I leave out other “details” like the distinction between net income, that is, after-fisc income, and market income or income before any government transfers and taxes.) There are people who are poor or middle class according to one measure but rich according to another. Wealth is not income nor is income consumption.

Depending on what we want to study, we may focus on one or another aggregate. If standard of living is our concern, consumption is probably the best measure; it is also probably the best measure for long-term (lifetime) income. But if our interest is to look at the potential consumption that one can afford without reducing her assets, then income is a better measure. One may consider a decision to save out of a high income, and thus to choose to have a relatively low consumption, as not different from a decision to use one’s income to buy restaurant meals instead of a car. It is just a decision of what to do, or not to do, with your income that only the income-rich have the luxury to make. They can choose; others cannot.

Anyway, the point of my comment is to make people think about consumption inequality. From that perspective, things don't look as bad.

Ahmed Fares said...

Further to my comment, this from an article by Scott Sumner with a quote from Matthew Yglesias (Matthew's quote is in bold):

I have often advocated a progressive consumption tax. If you try to “tax the rich” without reducing their consumption, then you aren’t actually taxing the rich. Who are you taxing in that case? Perhaps you are reducing the amount that the rich put into investment projects. Or maybe you are reducing the amount that the rich donate to charity. But if you are not reducing the consumption of the rich, then it’s hard to see how you are freeing up resources that can be used to help the non-rich.

In a recent post, Matt Yglesias did a nice job of explaining how public policy is ultimately not about moving money around, it’s about shifting resources from one use to another:

I do see the view, from a standpoint of abstract cosmic justice, that it’s annoying to see someone like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos get so rich without contributing more to the Treasury. So there is a case for taxing wealth or unrealized capital gains or at a minimum changing the stepped-up basis rule. But fundamentally, I do think there are profound reasons why things like VAT and payroll taxes are the workhorses of European welfare states. Musk is not employing 10,000 butlers who can be taxed away and turned into preschool teachers. Inducing him to liquidate financial assets and fork over the proceeds does not generate any real resources that are available for new use. What a Nordic-style tax system does is broadly constrain consumption in order to free up resources for more extensive consumption of health, education, and other social goods.

David Palmeter said...

Old Mole,

When the choice is between Bernie and Hillary or Biden, I vote for Bernie; when it's between Hillary or Biden and Trump, I vote for Hillary or Biden.

s. wallerstein said...

Martin Jay, by the way, is a historian, not a sociologist.

I have his little book on Adorno, which is a godsend, since before reading Jay's work, I couldn't understand Adorno at all.

John Rapko said...

s. wallerstein--For a basic account of Adorno, I would recommend Brian O'Connor's Adorno, which is considerably more penetrating philosophically than Jay's. And I would (unsurprisingly) agree with Alasdair MacIntyre's assessment that "the account of Adorno that emerges from the three splendid essays about him in the latter half of this book [Raymond Geuss's Outside Ethics], 'Suffering and Knowledge in Adorno', 'Art and Criticism in Adorno's Aesthetics', and 'Adorno's Gaps', which together constitute as good an interpretation of and commentary on Adorno as we are likely to get." MacIntyre's review is here:

s. wallerstein said...

John Rapko,

Thank you.

By the way, since I'm not a philosopher, the account that Jay, not a philosopher either,
gives of Adorno may contain everything I wanted to know about Adorno, but was too confused to ask.

However, I'll keep the accounts you mention in mind in case I seek further enlightenment on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Many interesting points here. Thanks.
>>Having said that, there isn't much difference in how the rich and others live. Things that were once considered luxuries of the rich are now commonplace in middle class houses. Dishwashers, air conditioning, etc.

As someone who has lived with quote wealthy folks, I understand the sentiment of this. But, I think it misses two big points.
1. The consumption of the wealthy is unimaginable to most. Do you want to fly from LA to Paris for an afternoon shopping trip? Done. 10k square ft houses on 4 continents? Not a problem.

Anonymous said...

2. Entirely missed here is the type of consumption and subsequent influence the uberwealthy enjoy. Dinner with a local judge. Done. Golf with the president of Harvard. Schedule it. Private seminar with CEO of Goldman Sachs. Simple.
Warren Buffet is a unique man in many ways. He is "simple" compared to most rich folks. He still enjoys private jets, houses anywhere in the world, access to the most exclusive clubs, parties, events and people, etc. He flies in and out of countries largely as he wishes. He never stands in a passport or customs line. This access is invaluable when he wants xyz done--he picks up the phone and can move mountains.
I doubt the person making 100k can "consume" in the same way...

steveo said...

Good writing. Posted this to Robert Reich's substack.