Coming Soon:

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, April 30, 2017

OUR FIRST HUNDRED DAYS

We began with the largest national demonstration in this country's history, five million by some counts.  This has been followed by many, many more street demonstrations and marches, most recently by scientists, not ordinarily known for such actions.  Our first hundred days has seen thousands of political novices put their names forward for public office in local elections across the nation.  Our first hundred days has seen District Judges putting on hold abominable presidential decrees.  This hundred days has given us the creation of a new form of protest, the citizen Town Hall, in which previously oblivious member of the House of Representatives cower and cringe and abruptly flee in the face of voter outrage.  This hundred days has seen an outpouring of grassroots political donations previously unheard of during non-election seasons.  This hundred days has seen the ignominious defeat of cruel, heartless health care legislation promised unceasingly for seven years by a party that now controls all the branches of government.

It has not been a bad hundred days for us.  May the next hundred, and the next hundred, and the next hundred after that be as good.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

INITIAL RESPONSE: QUESTIONS FOR I. M. FLAUD

I. M. Flaud quotes extended passages from a later edition of von Neumann and Morgenstern dealing with the extension of the notion of a zero-sum game to n-person games, n greater than 2.  This is totally new to me and I need to hunt that up and look at it before I try to respond.

One question to I. M. Flaud:  Whom are you quoting?  von Neumann died in '57, I think, and a 60th anniversary edition would have appeared in 2004.  The language quoted about gains and losses makes it sound as though we are talking not about zero sums of utility but zero sums of money, which are of course interpersonally comparable.  So that is an entirely different question.

Can you throw any light on this?

A REPLYTO AN OLD QUESTION

Someone, I cannot now find the question, asked me on this blog how many books I have in my personal library.  The answer is very few, perhaps 1500-1600, or so, down-sized from when I lived in Massachusetts.  That is a very small library for a professor my age.  On the other hand, I have read almost all of them.  I have them organized in five groups, each separately alphabetized:  General, Economics, Marx, Kant, and Afro-American Studies.  There is also a small Mathematics section, and of course all the music I acquired during my viola study and quartet playing.  Oh, and also a section devoted to various editions of the books I have published or in which I have published.  That is reasonably large.

BALM FOR THE SOUL

Someone, I think it was Chris, described this as a “Marxist/anarchist blog,” which I suppose is fair enough, inasmuch as I identify myself here as a Marxist and an anarchist [also an atheist, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a violist – this last something of a reach – but whatever, as young people say.]  However, that is not how I think of myself.  I am a philosopher, a teacher, and, more than anything else, a life-long lover of powerful, simple ideas, so lucidly and elegantly expressed that their beauty can be seen by all.  The exigencies of the present political situation have compelled me to venture very far from my true calling, but my mental health requires that I return from time to time to the realm of ideas to remind myself what I most love.

Which brings me to the subject of my musings during this morning’s walk.  Can it be, I found myself wondering, that a term in a language should always be misused?  I am not here merely expressing my inner pedant.  Like many, I cringe when some television talking head says that this or that “begs the question,” meaning that it compels us to ask the question, not that it assumes what is to be proved.  Or when another deep thinker says that it is impossible to underestimate the importance of something, meaning of course that its importance is so great that it is impossible to overestimate that importance.  My favorite example of this linguistic pickiness is Harry Levin, the great Harvard Shakespeare scholar of half a century ago.  When my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, mailed a complete draft of her doctoral dissertation on Samuel Richardson to Levin, who was her Director, he sent it back without comment, but he had clearly read it, because throughout the text, he had countlessly times changed “shall” to “will” and “will” to “shall.”  Once those essential alterations were made, she was good to go.

No, I am talking about a made-up phrase, coined more than seventy years ago by John von Neumann – zero-sum game.  [Strictly speaking, the term should be credited both to von Neumann and to his co-author, economist Oskar Morgenstern.  Morgenstern was a very interesting thinker, the author, among other things, of a delightful book titled On the Accuracy of Economic Observations, which I recommend to you all, but von Neumann was one of the authentic geniuses of the twentieth century, so I shall imitate my fellow Marxists, who tend to attribute all the ideas of Marx and Engels to Marx, and speak as though Game Theory was von Neumann’s creation alone.]  Everybody uses the phrase “zero-sum game,” and everybody, without exception, misuses it.  Is that even linguistically possible?  Here are just two examples.  The first is from Barack Obama’s farewell address this past January.  The second is an older misuse by Paul Krugman who, think of him what you will, is a Nobel Laureate in Economics and should know better.

Obama:   “Our economy doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.”

Krugman:  “Unlike war, trade is not a zero-sum game.”

I shall now explain to you exactly what “zero-sum game” means in several thousand well-chosen words.  I am well aware that at this point I shall be losing virtually all of my readers, but in a desperate effort to hold a few of you before you surf away to your favorite revolutionary blog, I will simply observe that the term has its roots in the successful attempt by neo-classical economists to purge their “scientific” discipline of its radical redistributionist roots.

In 1944, von Neumann and Morgenstern published a brilliant book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, which created the new mathematical/economic sub-field of Game Theory.  The centerpiece of the book is a powerful theorem concerning a certain sub-set of two-person games.  A game is defined as a series of moves leading, by means of a termination rule, to a determinate outcome.  [The positing of a termination rule eliminates the possibility of a game with an infinite number of repetitive moves.  In Chess, for example the rules stipulate that if a position occurs three times, or if fifty moves are made without a piece being taken or a pawn being promoted to the eighth rank, the game is declared a draw.]

von Neumann posits that each player has a complete, transitive utility function that assigns a utility index, invariant up to an affine transformation, to each possible outcome of the game.  [Invariance up to an affine transformation makes it possible to assign cardinal indices, not merely ordinal indices, to the outcomes.  A familiar example of an affine transformation is the rule that allows us to figure out what the Fahrenheit equivalent is of a temperature give in degrees Celsius.  The rule is Degrees F = 9/5 Degrees C + 32.   It tells us that if the TV in the Paris airport, as we deplane, says it is going to be 20 degrees Celsius today, that means it will be 68 degrees F, so no jacket needed before catching a cab to the hotel.]

Now, we all remember that Jeremy Bentham brought into Political Economy the notion of a social calculation of the pleasure [or utility] and pain [or disutility] promised by a proposed law, along with the principle that we should always seek in our legislating to produce the Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number, a principle that rapidly acquired the label Utilitarianism.  What we may not so readily recall is that when Bentham proposed this now familiar principle, it was intended by him and understood by others to be a shockingly radical, not to say revolutionary, idea.  Bentham stipulated that each was to count for one, which meant that the pleasures and pains of the peasants would weigh as heavily as those of the aristocrats.  This was utterly unacceptable to the toffs, who protested that since their sensibilities were ever so much more refined than those of the rude masses, their delights and discomforts should carry greater weight in the social calculus [the Princess and the Pea Principle].  But there were so many peasants and so few aristocrats that no such weighting could overcome the tendency of the misery of the masses to outweigh the pleasures of the classes.   It was a proposal that had the power to overturn the established order, and Bentham knew it.

Bentham’s godson, John Stuart Mill, did his best to contain the damage, arguing in Utilitarianism for a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, but that was a desperation rearguard action, akin to laying a few landmines during the retreat to Dunkirk.  The real solution was advanced by the Economists, who latched onto an arcane doctrine in English Philosophy about the impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility.  This gave rise to Indifference Maps, Pareto Preference, and all manner of highly successful defenses against the totally unacceptable suggestion that one person’s utility should be added to another’s.  The firewall against the demands of the lower classes was given its theoretical imprimatur in Lionel Robbins’ classic 1932 book, Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science.

Enter von Neumann.  In Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, von Neumann assumed that each of the players in the two-person game had a cardinal utility function, but that in general nothing could be said about the relationship between one player’s evaluation of the outcome of a game and that of the other player.  However, he proved that in one very special set of circumstances, it was possible to make such a comparison, and in fact actually to add one player’s assignment of utility to another’s.  In short, one could give meaning to the notion of the sum of their evaluations, despite not making any assumptions about interpersonal comparisons of utility.

The key was the assumption that the two players had strictly opposed preference orders not merely for the finite set of outcomes of the game, but even for probability mixes of those outcomes, which can be called “lotteries.”  Let me explain.  There are, by the stipulation of a termination rule, a finite set of outcomes, over which each player is assumed to be able to define a utility function.  Von Neumann added to this the further assumption that each player could express a complete and transitive preference over the infinitely varied ways in which one could assign probabilities to those outcomes [each assignment to sum to 1, of course].  Think of these assignments as lottery wheels, with the size of each slice of the lottery wheel corresponding to the weight being assigned to the outcome that the slice represents.  Spin the wheel, and one prize will win, with the probability of that win a function of the size of the slice.  Von Neumann now made a second assumption, that each player could express consistent preferences not only over prizes and lotteries of prizes, but even over lotteries of lotteries of prizes – what are called compound lotteries [The most famous example of a compound lottery is the Irish Sweepstakes, in which the prizes were not amounts of money, but betting tickets on horse races.  A ticket in the Sweepstakes was a bet on a bet, as it were.]

Now, by mathematical rules quite familiar to probability theorists, compound lotteries can be reduce to simple lotteries in which the two prizes are the least and most favored outcomes.  [This reduction calculation is equivalent to the assumption that the players have no pure preference for or aversion to risk itself, independent of the probabilities.  That is a powerful assumption, by the way.  I, for example, have an aversion to risk.  Offer me the certainty of one dollar, or a fifty-fifty chance of getting nothing or two dollars, and I will take the sure dollar every time.]

Von Neumann now asks the following question:  What, if anything, can we say about the utility assignments to outcomes of a game between two players who have strictly, exactly opposite preferences not only for the outcomes but also for all compound lotteries of the outcomes?  His answer was simply gorgeous.  First, he said, perform an affine transformation on each player’s utility function so that the least preferred outcome for that player is assigned a utility of 0 and the most preferred outcome is assigned a utility of 1.  Under these very restrictive and special conditions – a two person game with a finite set of outcomes in which the players have strictly opposed preferences for compound lotteries of the outcomes – it is possible fairly easily to show that the sum of the utilities assigned by the two players to any outcome or lottery of outcomes will sum to 1.  [Check my other blog for the proof.]  If one then performs one final affine transformation, this time transforming player 2’s utility function so that it runs from -1 to 0 rather than from 0 to 1, then the sum of the utilities assigned by the two players to outcomes or compound lotteries of outcomes will always sum to zero.

THIS, AND ONLY THIS, IS WHAT IS MEANT BY A “ZERO-SUM GAME.

In particular, no game or game-like situation with three or more players can be a zero-sum game.  Furthermore, it is a mistake to conclude that all other games are positive sum, or negative sum, or variable sum games.  The concept of the sum of a game, assuming the impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, is simply undefined for all such games.  And this is true, regardless of what Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, and everyone else says.

So everyone always misuses the phrase “zero-sum game.”




Friday, April 28, 2017

I AM GROWING WEARY OF THIS

I should like to make an observation anent the responses to my post titled “I WEEP.”  There is something gratifying, but also diminishing, in the relentless condemnation of everyone who does not meet one’s inflexible standards of rectitude.  Karl Marx was, to my way of thinking, the greatest student of society who has ever lived.  His work is an inspiration to me, as it is to countless others.  Again and again I return not only to his texts but also to his themes, his insights, his moral passion.  But he was not a particularly admirable man.  He cadged money from friends and acolytes even though he was living a more comfortably middle class life than they.  He seduced the family servant and got her pregnant.  He was a sexist at a time when many were not.  When he received a letter from Friedrich Engels telling him that Engels’ great love, Mary Burns, had died, he scarcely acknowledged the news and instead went on about some matter that was concerning him.  Long ago, I decided that he was not a person I would have enjoyed knowing.  But that is the way of the world.

I am appalled and affronted by Donald Trump.  I am not appalled and affronted by Barack Obama.  I am utterly opposed to Trump’s policies, such as they seem to be, or at least to what he is actually doing with the power of the presidency.  I have supported some of Obama’s policies and actions and strongly opposed others.  But it has seemed to me that I could then at least reasonably hope for improvement in Obama’s actions and policies, something I cannot now hope for with regard to Trump.

It is easy enough, and frankly, I think rather cheap, for Chris and others to call me self-deceived, foolish, or blind.  Obama’s actions paved the way for my son to have the right to marry.  His actions made it possible for millions of people to obtain health insurance that they otherwise would not have.  In the face of determined Republican opposition, he took concrete steps to combat global warming, steps that Trump and his administration are now hurrying to reverse.  That is not nothing, and I think it is unwise for anyone on the left to think and talk and act as though it is.

Let me quote the great concluding lines of the magisterial tenth chapter of Capital, “The Working Day”:

“It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.”  For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death.  In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.”


Notice that in this crucial passage, Marx does not offer up the promise of socialism.  He talks instead about the passage of the Ten Hours Bill, which would limit the working day to ten hours [not eight – that came much later, after struggle and organization and repeated defeats.]  When I make a distinction between Trump and Obama, I am following in Marx’s footsteps.

As for Noam Chomsky, he is more than able to speak for himself.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

I WEEP

I have several times on this blog remarked on the ability of some of the greatest thinkers of the past three centuries to forge groundbreaking theories from the most unpromising materials, materials often that their contemporaries considered beneath serious notice:  Adam Smith and David Ricardo, fashioning economic theory out of the “higgling and jiggling” of the marketplace, Edward Tyler transmuting travelers’ tales of the South Sea Islands into the discipline of Anthropology, Émile Durkheim discovering Sociology in statistics of suicide, Freud following the trail of dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue into the depths of the unconscious.  I have the very greatest admiration for these theorists and would imitate them if I could, but confronted as I am now by a president of stultifying crudity, banality, cruelty, corruption, and mendacity, I find myself struggling to find anything significant or illuminating to say.  The contemplation of Trump makes me feel dull, enervated, appalled.  I do not have the capacity of the great satirists of the Western tradition to make art out of disgust.

During my morning walks, I find myself retreating into extended inner monologues explaining the intricacies of Game Theory or rehearsing the elegant arguments of David Hume.  Duty requires me to call the office of a Senator, sign an online petition, make yet another token donation, but there is no joy in these small acts, no sense of the beauty of ideas.  I fear that I grow stupid.

Across America, indeed throughout the world, Trump and the Republicans are making the world uglier, crueler, harsher, more inhuman and unjust even than it already was.

And now Barack Obama is accepting a Wall Street backed $400,000 fee for a speech in Chicago.


I weep.

THE KUSHNER KONNECTION

The NY TIMES today has a detailed account of the extensive business connections of the Kushner family with a network of rather questionable financiers in Africa and Europe.

More and more, I think that the Trumps and Kushners are to the world of established international finance as Smerdyakov is to the old man and his three legitimate children in The Brothers Karamazov:  The bastard who, by taking Ivan at his word, reveals the inner evil of his nihilism.  They give the phrase "naked capitalism" renewed meaning.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

THE INTERNET IS EXTRAORDINARY

I just had an e-mail from a student in Kazakhstan who somehow found my writings on the university.  How wonderful!

LAUDATE DOMINUM

Mirabile dictu, Susie and I have found a buyer for our apartment, a young doctor and his wife who are coming to Chapel Hill so that he may take up a residency at UNC Hospitals.  Papers have been signed, but there is still the inspection, so once more we shall prepare the apartment to be seen, this time by an eagle-eyed Inspector probing for hidden plumbing flaws or hinky wiring.  

Now begins the seemingly endless business of telling everyone who matters [i.e., who sends me money, like the Massachusetts Pension System] what our new address is, informing Spectrum [formerly Time Warner Cable – when did that happen?] that we still want Starz at our new location, and telling the NY TIMES the new delivery location. 

As I predicted, we took a bath with the selling price.  I figured out that if you ignore inflation and complicated matters like that, my gains and losses on the sale of five principal dwellings over the past half century just about sum to zero dollars.  I would strongly suggest that no one ask me for financial advice.  On the other hand, I have never aimed to die rich, just solvent so that my children are not left with bills to pay.

The next stage of my life, if things work out as I hope, will feature an increasing involvement with Columbia University through my new membership in the Society of Senior Scholars there.  It is now forty-six years since I left Columbia for an extraordinary thirty-seven years at the University of Massachusetts.  The young Marxists At UMass from whom I learned so much are now old, retired, and in some cases no longer Marxists.  The exciting experimental undergraduate program I started – Social Thought and Political Economy – is flourishing in middle age, and the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies that I helped to create and ran for twelve years has just celebrated its first twenty years, turning out bright, young, productive scholars.  

My involvement with Columbia will necessarily be intermittent, since I will continue to live in North Carolina, but there are direct flights, and as I learned long ago, in the Academy even those professors who live across the street from the university, as I did back then, are liable not to spend that much time on campus.


It should be fun.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

NETWORKING

This morning, I read this very interesting and informative piece about Jared Kushner, Trump's increasingly powerful son-in-law.  Note in particular the network of connections linking Kushner with such diverse players as Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Glen Beck.  Note also the patently deliberate campaign to portray him as the moderating, even liberal, force moving Trump toward respectability.  You and I do this politics thing as a sideline, as a hobby, perhaps even as a passion, but we are up against smart people who do it twenty-four hours a day as their profession.  The only thing we've got going for us is that there are more of us than there are of them.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A SAD DAY

The pressure of trying to sell my apartment has absorbed virtually all of my attention and energy.  Each time there is a showing, my wife and I rush about hiding all evidences that actual human beings live here, remove the latest water spots from the immaculate kitchen floor, and then leave to hang out somewhere for two hours, anxiously awaiting news from our agent.  While this has been going on, a flood of comments have erupted on this blog.

This morning, it is raining, so no walk.  Since I got up at five a.m. nonetheless, I found myself with some down time [even real estate agents do not call at 5:45 a.m.], so I decided to try to catch up with the comment thread.  And then I found this sad comment, posted by Ed Barreras at 6:23 yesterday evening:

“I wake up to find that the wonderful, kind-hearted Hubert Dreyfus is dead and that revolting orange goblin is still president of the United States. Life sucks.”

Marx, Althusser, robots and such are interesting, but this takes precedence.  Bert Dreyfus was my close friend sixty years ago when I was a graduate student at Harvard, and I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing.  I will leave it to others to write about his philosophical contributions and his long, distinguished career at Berkeley.  I would like to remember him by telling some Bert Dreyfus stories in an effort to capture his unusual, not to say unique, character.  In the old Reader’s Digest, there was a little feature at the bottom of the page titled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.”  Bert would be a favorite in that category for many of us who knew him then.

Bert was short [5’3”, 5’4”?], quite thin, with carrot colored hair.  His brother Stuart looked very much like him, except that Stuart’s hair was sort of purple.  Both, needless to say, were ferociously bright.  Bert had a quirky smile and an ebullient manner.  For reasons that the rest of us could not quite fathom, he was spectacularly successful with women.  One day, I ran into him as he was on his way to a date with a new young lady.  I saw him on Mass Ave the next morning, and asked him how the date had gone.  “It was fine,” he said, “but afterwards she wanted to talk about philosophy and I was up all night.”

Bert was the reason why I learned to use chopsticks efficiently.  Every so often a group of us [Bert, Charles Parsons, Steven Barker, Ingrid Stadler, Sam Todes, myself] would get enough money together to go out for Chinese, at what was then the newly opened Joyce Chen restaurant.  By agreement, we would order a bunch of dishes and split the bill equally.  Although Bert was small and thin, he ate like a Tasmanian Devil, and if you did not wield the chopsticks well enough, he would eat part of your share of the food.

Bert was also indirectly responsible for my first marriage.  In 1957, I got my doctorate and went into the Army to do my six months of active duty as the first portion of a six year National Guard commitment [those were the days of the draft, and it was either that or two years in the Regular Army.]  After Basic Training at Fort Dix, I was transferred to Fort Devens in Ayer, MA, about an hour’s drive west of Cambridge, for training as a Communications Specialist [nothing fancy – climbing poles to string wire and that sort of thing.]  Every so often I would get a pass to go off base.  Bert had gone to Paris to study with Merleau-Ponty, so I would hitch a ride into Cambridge and hang out with his girlfriend, Adair Moffat, who was a Radcliffe undergraduate living in Whitman Hall.  One day, I saw a beautiful young woman sitting at the bell desk waiting for a date.  I asked her out and married her five years later.

Bert and Sam Todes were members of the Kant Study Group that Charles Parsons and I organized in 1956-57 in our Mass Ave apartment.  It met every Wednesday evening from 8-12 p.m. all year long, during which we plowed through the First and Third Critiques, debating the meaning of every page.  Most of us had taken C. I. Lewis’ great course on the First Critique, and we shared a belief that Kant was the supreme philosopher.  That Kant Group, as we called it, was the greatest educational experience of my life.

When Bert returned from Paris, he was full of news about the revolutionary things Merleau-Ponty was saying there.  Sam, who seemed to have been born with a complete metaphysical system in his head, declared it old hat, having, it seems, already arrived at the same conclusions himself.

Bert eventually got a job teaching in the Philosophy Section of the Humanities Department at MIT, as did Sam.  The chair in those days was a curious philosopher named Huston Smith.  In ’63-’64, my wife and I returned to Cambridge from Chicago, where I was an Assistant Professor, so that I could spend a year subbing for Ingrid Stadler at Wellesley while she went on leave.  Both my wife and I desperately wanted to stay in Cambridge and Bert did everything he could to promote a job for me at MIT, but it was no use.  Instead, I ended up getting a tenure offer from Columbia.


Bert went off to Berkeley in ’68 [I think], and we lost touch, but as this post perhaps makes clear, he remained vividly alive in my thoughts for the next half-century, and is so today, for all that he has passed away.  I shall not miss him.  Instead I shall remember him for as long as I am still alive.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

SOME HELPFUL FACTS TO GO WITH MY MAUNDERINGS

This primer from DailyKos on the various organizations [DNC, DCCC, DSCC, DLC] that raise money for and organize for the election of Democrats is quite helpful.  The bottom line is that it is always better to give directly to individual candidates.  It is worth a few moments' reading time.

A SUNDAY MORNING CRI DE COEUR

I am not a happy warrior.  I am not one of those admirable people who enjoys the fight.  I do not wade into a struggle for economic justice or gender equality or environmental protection with a laugh on my lips, reinvigorated by each defeat to ever greater efforts.  I much prefer to sit quietly and contemplate my circles, as Archimedes did when Syracuse was attacked [or so Kierkegaard says.]  But the sheer awfulness of contemporary America, both before Trump and after, compels me to pay attention.  In these brief remarks, I shall try to come to terms in some way with what Karl Marx got right about capitalist society and what he got wrong.  I do this because I need to understand why the behavior of my fellow Americans so dramatically diverges from what I would have expected.

Standing off a bit from the detail of his theories [including the Labor Theory of Value, about which I have, after all, written an entire book and several highly technical journal articles], what I can see is that Marx told us about three related but different things:  First, the fundamental exploitative structure of capitalism; Second, the probable direction in which capitalism would develop as its institutions matured; and Third, how men and women would respond to that underlying exploitation and that development.

Looking at things a century and a half after Marx published Capital [less one year], I believe that what I see is this:  Marx was dead right on the first point, more right than wrong on the second point, and utterly wrong on the third point. 

First things first:  Capitalism is indeed built on exploitation, it thrives on exploitation, it requires exploitation to survive, the exploitation is structural, and has nothing in particular to do with the character or feelings of those who control the capital, and capitalism will therefore continue to exploit workers for as long as it exists, regardless of the ameliorations and accommodations it may be forced on occasion to concede.  To demonstrate this was an enormous accomplishment for Marx, and all by itself establishes his claim as the greatest social scientist who has ever lived.

With regard to the second matter, Marx was shrewdly prescient, although he was not alone in anticipating the way things would play out.  He was quite right about the tendency of capitals to gobble up other capitals and become larger and larger.  I am not sure he anticipated how resilient and persistent would be the realm of small firms, start-ups, petty capitalist economic activity, but his larger claims are compatible with that phenomenon.  He, like many others, saw the danger to capitalism in the cycle of booms and busts, and in some loose sense he may even be said to have predicted the great crash of ’29, although he expected it sooner than it came.  The internationalization of capitalism is entirely in keeping with his central insights, of course.  What he got wrong, as I have argued elsewhere, was the persistence of a pyramidal structure of jobs and wages in the ranks of the working class, broadly defined.  This was an important failure on his part, though he can hardly be blamed for it, I think.  A century and a half later, the stark opposition of capital and labor has been not replaced but it has been overlain with the conflicts of interest between well-paid and poorly-paid members of the working class.  Technically speaking, they are all exploited – the minimum wage workers and the lavishly paid members of the upper middle classes – but the political, social, ideological, and human consequences of that exploitation are utterly different for the two groups.

The third thing, the likely response of men and women to the devolution of capitalism, Marx got totally wrong, so far as I can see.  Now do not misunderstand me:  I think Marx was the world’s greatest theorist of mystification, of false consciousness, of ideology [and I have written a book and many articles about this as well.]  But Marx was convinced that over time, as the centralization of capitalism continued, and even though members of the ruling and exploiting class would more firmly clasp to their collective bosom the self-justifying rationalizations offered for their unrelenting exploitation by priests, political theorists, and economists, workers would be led to unite, throw off their acceptance of those rationalizations, and develop ever sharper and more energized consciousness of their condition, inspiring them to cast about for ways to overthrow the exploiters and take collective ownership of their own collective product:  Capital.

Well, in the early years of the last century, when my grandfather helped lead the New York Socialist Party to electoral victories, himself winning election to the New York Board of Aldermen in 1917, it was still possible to believe that he and his comrades were the avant garde of a worldwide revolution.  But a century later, only those who have converted a triumph of social science into a quasi-religion can still cling to that belief.  Thomas Frank memorably asked, What’s The Matter With Kansas?  I think we need to ask, what in the name of God is the matter with the whole damned country?

Now, I know all about the biases of the media, about epistemic bubbles, about the well-funded efforts to deny the plain facts of climate change, of economic misery, of plain straight-up kleptocracy, but why do scores of millions, more than scores of millions, buy into that nonsense?  I mean, we know it is nonsense, and we do not have access to any sources of information that are denied to our fellow citizens.  The information is all there, free, available simply by picking up a TV remote and changing the station, or Googling with a mouse.  Fox News draws vastly more people than Lawrence O’Donnell, but there is no legislative limit on the number of people allowed to tune him in.  Never mind Trump.  Why on earth do people all over America elect and re-elect politicians whose whole aim in life is to screw them?

I know all about gerrymandering and voter suppression, but that is no explanation.  Bernie Sanders, God bless him, was the only candidate in the last Presidential cycle talking about the fact that the rich are screwing the poor.  Why didn’t he pull 80% of the total vote of both parties?

I don’t get it.


Friday, April 21, 2017

OVERDETERMINATION

Buried in the flood of comments posted recently on this blog have been several allusions to the term “overdetermined” as used by Louis Althusser and some of those influenced by him.  I have been under a good deal of stress lately, and since I find it relaxing to sort out complicated concepts, I thought I would spend a few restful moments explaining the notion of overdetermination.

The term has its origin in Linear Algebra, where a system of linear equations is said to be underdetermined if it has fewer equations than unknowns.  “Underdetermined” here means that the equations cannot be solved for the values of the unknowns because the equations do not provide sufficient information.  A system of two linearly independent equations in three unknowns can only be reduced to the point at which the values of the remaining two variables lie somewhere along a straight line.  A system of two equations in four unknowns reduces to a plane of equally correct solution points, and so forth. 

By contrast, if the system has more equations than unknowns, it is said to be overdetermined.  There is, so to speak, too much information, and if the equations are all linearly independent of one another, there will be no consistent set of values of the variables that satisfy the equations [if there is a set of values that satisfy the equations, then the equations are not independent, which means their number can be reduced by the number of degrees of overdetermination.]

Freud borrowed the term “overdetermined” to describe a curious phenomenon that he encountered on occasion when analyzing the dreams of his patients.  A patient would recount a dream and then would be led to associate freely to each element of the dream [not to the dream as a whole], continuing until the train of associations ran out.  Usually in a case of successful dream analysis the associations would lead to the repressed wishes or fantasies lying beneath each element of the dream.  The dream would then be completely analyzed.  But sometimes, even after each element had been fully explained, associations would continue and an entirely different set of repressed wishes and fantasies would surface.  Dream elements that led in this way to two completely different repressed wishes, each by itself sufficient to explain the dream element, were said by Freud to be overdetermined.  The mind, in effect economizing, found a way to give expression to two different repressed wishes by means of the same dream element.  This was, Freud concluded, one of the many ways in which the laws regulating the unconscious differ from the laws governing conscious thought.

In the period following the publication of Das Kapital, an enormous, complex, many-sided debate sprang up among Marx’s legions of followers concerning the precise role of economic institutions and developments in the determination of social, political, legal, and other institutions and practices in society.  Marx’s most dramatic claim, setting him against almost everyone writing before and during his lifetime, was that contrary to what everyone else thought, it was not the religion or the politics or the law or the philosophy of a society that determined its fundamental character and its historical development, but instead its system of the social relations of material production.  His vivid and memorable teaching of the base and superstructure of a society captured this claim in an unforgettable image.  The post-Marx debates focused on many aspects of his theories, none more contentiously than on this image of base and superstructure.  Some of his followers argued that according to Marx the economic base was the sole determinant of the institutional and ideological superstructure.  Others argued that this unidirectional causality held true only in the end or in the long run or in the last instance or fundamentally.   And some said that there were a number of factors that determined the organization and direction of development of a society, of which the economic was only one, albeit the most important.

As I understand him, Althusser, confronting a debate in the French intellectual world between “orthodox” Marxists who offered a simplified base/superstructure analysis and anti-Marxists who rejected Marx’s insights, opted for the view that the evolution of a society has multiple determinants, of which the economic is the most important, but by no means the only, factor.  So far so good.  He then royally confused matters by referring to this as “overdetermination,” which was just the wrong term to use.

Well, that was good for me.  I hope it was good for you.



FRIDAY LIST 12 [GOOD GRIEF, HAVE I BEEN DOING THIS FOR THREE MONTHS?]

It is Friday again, and time to report in.  There are a number of by-elections worth your attention:  The Georgia 6th run-off, Rob Quist’s run for the at-large Congressional seat in Montana [check here if you have missed this one], among others.  The energy level on the ground among Democrats generally and progressives in particular remains astonishing.  Judging from the fact that the DNC sat out the Georgia primary, took heat for that, and is now putting real money into the run-off, there is some evidence, albeit fragmentary, that the establishment types are susceptible to pressure.  Keep it up.

I remain genuinely staggered by the inability of the Office of the President, the State Department, and the Defense Department to get their stories straight on where one of America's aircraft carriers is.  Those are seriously big ships [longer than a football field with a 4.5 acre flight deck!]  They even have little telephones on them, I believe, so that you can call them up and ask where they are.

Four years of Trump may dramatically reconfigure the geopolitical world map as countries decide they cannot afford to throw their lot in with America.  I am not sure whether that is good or bad for the world, but it sure would be different.

Anyway, let me know what you have been up to this past week.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A TECHNICAL QUESTION FOR THE CROWD

This is a techie question for my readership.  Suppose I want to record and post on YouTube lectures involving technical materials that can only be taught clearly with the aid of visuals – diagrams or equations and the like.  My recent experience convinces me that having Staples make up big boards is too expensive, and my handwriting is now, with advancing age, so crabbed as to be virtually unreadable.  What I would like to do is this:  Prepare pages of formal materials in advance on my computer, and then deliver a lecture to a camera in such a way that with a click of a mouse, I can switch from the picture of my face [always something of a turn-off  J ] to a prepared page of material while my voice can still be heard over the projected formal material.  Then, with another click, I return to me talking to the camera.  It would of course be a big plus if, as I did this, I could deploy an arrow with a mouse to call attention to something on the screen being projected.


Intuitively, it seems this ought to be possible, but I have not a clue how one would do it.  Does anyone know what equipment I would need or how it could be done?

THE DAY AFTER

OK, so Jon Ossoff came up just short.  The total Democratic vote was about 49%.  We have a shot in the runoff.  Let us hope the Democratic National Committee takes note and starts busting its butt to support candidates across the country. 

Meanwhile I remain entranced by this Administration’s inability to keep track of its aircraft carriers.  J  What really happened, pretty clearly, is that the military, who actually do know where their heavy equipment is, sent word up the chain of command and Trump either did not get the message or did not understand what he was told or mindlessly exaggerated and misrepresented what he was told for the immediate headline grabbing effect, oblivious of the fact that the truth would come out.

By the way, a propos some comments on this blog, Seoul, South Korea, a metropolis of more than ten million, is only twenty miles from the DMZ [de-militarized zone, the border established by the cease fire sixty-four years ago].  The North Koreans have more than twenty thousand artillery weapons – “tubes” as they are called – along the DMZ quite capable of reaching Seoul.  At this point that, not the North’s nuclear capability, is the real danger.

With regard to the possibility of mass direct action, beyond what we have already seen, I dream of that but I am not hopeful.  Labor unions are weakened, and student protests of the sort that played a role during the Viet Nam War are less likely because there is no longer a military draft.  That is why America switched to an all-volunteer professional military more suitable to an imperial power.


Meanwhile, let us support every Democratic candidate we can find whose election would help reverse the overwhelming Republican domination of local and federal government.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

WHEW!

The final lecture in my series on Freud is now up.  Here it is.  I hope that some of you have found it interesting.

OK, THIS IS WEIRD

It now seems that when Trump claimed that he had sent a carrier task force steaming toward North Korea in  a show of force, the task force was actually 3,500 miles away going in another direction.  What is that all about?

WAITING FOR NEWS

While we wait for the results in Georgia’s by-election, with high hopes but a cold-eyed awareness of the unlikelihood of an upset, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on what has been going on in the world.  A very great deal that is really bad is happening both domestically and abroad, and though there is precious little any of us can do about it, in the words of Willy Loman’s wife, attention must be paid. 

The current confrontation with North Korea has quite naturally elicited comparison with the Cuban Missile Crisis fifty-five years ago, but they are quite different.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was much more serious, simply because Russia as well as America was armed with megaton-grade intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The crisis was created by a series of American actions – first attempting unsuccessfully to overthrow the revolutionary Cuban government of Fidel Castro, then situating intermediate range nuclear armed ballistic missiles on the Turkish border of the Soviet Union.  Khrushchev responded to both of these actions by agreeing to place Soviet medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba “ninety miles from America,”  John Kennedy, stung by the ignominious failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and determined to demonstrate that, though young, he was tough, set up a naval blockade around Cuba to intercept the Soviet ships bringing the missiles.  This was, unless I am mistaken, the only time the world has come to the brink of world-wide annihilation.  Fortunately, Khrushchev was considerably more rational than Kennedy and the collection of Cold War liberals around him, and disaster was averted.

The present confrontation has less scope for disaster, because North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is quite small and its delivery systems undeveloped.  But it is also, it seems to me, inherently a more unstable situation because the American president is demonstrably irrational and the North Korean ruler gives every appearance of being so also.  The chance of miscalculation on either side is enormous.  In addition, I can see no evidence whatsoever that the American President has the slightest concern for the loss of millions of lives, so long as he is made to appear strong on television and likes how he is received by public opinion.  It is as yet undetermined whether those around him are prepared to exercise any restraint on him.

I cannot see anything that even an aroused public can do in the short run to diminish the probability of disaster.  We must simply hope.

The domestic situation is, I believe, a good deal worse than is generally recognized.  Trump’s failures with regard to the Muslim ban and the repeal of the ACA are very good indeed, and I celebrate them.  It also seems now that he and the Republicans will fail to restructure the tax code so as to benefit the super-rich, including of course the President himself.  But quietly, off camera, the appalling collection of people he selected for cabinet positions are quickly doing things that endanger the freedom, the health, the very lives of millions of Americans, while hastening the environmental disasters that now loom.  I weary of cataloguing the ugliness being perpetrated by the Attorney General, the Secretary of Education, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and many more.  For all that he is despicable, Steve Bannon has not yet been able to do nearly as much damage as these other deplorable men and women.

Our only recourse, aside from the courts, which may provide some relief, is the ballot box, today, in months to come, and then in 2018.  I do not have anything clever or deep to offer, just my acknowledgement here of the harm being done.

What offers the most hope, at least to me, is the continuing energy of resistance at the grassroots level.  Everything we can do to support that and participate in it is to be encouraged, applauded, and imitated.



Monday, April 17, 2017

EXPLANATION

Later today I shall give the last Freud lecture.  That and the pressures of preparing to move have absorbed my attention lately, which is why I have not weighed in on the interesting and extended discussions going on in the Comments section of this blog.  I hope after today to be able to reenter the fray.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

VERY BAD NEWS

There is nothing any of us can do about it, but the situation developing with North Korea is very frightening.  It is terrifying to see an unstable man with his hands on nuclear weapons.  And then there is Kim-Jong Un. 

It appears, from a distance, that Trump is enraptured with the power to order airstrikes, unconnected with any coherent policy or understanding of the situation on the ground.  Should he order the use of tactical nuclear weapons, there will be no going back.  I have no idea whether the North Korean ruler is crafty or unhinged, but I think I can make a pretty good assessment of the American ruler, and nothing I see is at all reassuring.

Friday, April 14, 2017

REALLY GOOD NEWS

This is just the sort of thing we need to do, and keep doing.  This is how movements start.

FRIDAY LIST 11

David Palmeter said...
Regular weekly contribution to Ossoff campaign; contribution to Quist campaign via Our Revolution.
howard berman said...
Committed to monthly payments to ACLU
David Palmeter said...
Since, as I'm reminded at this time of year, I have taxation without representation, I have no member of Congress to call. We in DC do have a "delegate" who has no vote on the floor of the House. I confined my activities to the usual--a donation to the Ossoff campaign and the OurRevolution.
howie berman said...
Wrote email to The Nation divulging my slogan for the opposition, at least my personal approach, "Resist and exist." Not sure how catchy, the point being that keeping our communities viable between acts of resistance is the way to go
Charles Rossi said...
1. Increased my monthly contribution to Planned Parenthood.
2. Contributed again to the Jon Ossoff campaign (there is a contribution multiplier from some person or group). The Georgia Republicans or some group of knuckledraggers has run some awful ads against Ossoff, linking him to Bin Laden as a "mouthpiece for terrorists." Loathsome stuff.
3. Contributed to the campaign of Archie Parnell running as a democrat for the congressional seat in South Carolina vacated by the execrable Mick Mulvaney who became DT's Director of Management and Budget (what has happened to the American Irish who were reliable Democrats once. In PA, we have Toomey as a Club for Growth Senator and Pat Meehan as my local congressmen; both deaf to entreaty).
4. Signed a slew (or is it slough) of petitions, including one from Bernie Sanders and some Congressfolk about protecting Social Security.
5. Agreed to participate in a demonstration on Tax Day in Philadelphia to demand that DT's tax returns be made public and that a fair tax system be established.
6. Participated in a demo against DT's ginning up of the war machine in Syria.
Tom Cathcart said...
Gave a bit more money to the ACLU and called Rep. Faso's office to ask him not to support the new effort to revive "Repeal and Replace." Then I went off to perform at a conference of far greater philosophical import: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Standup Comedy. Another one of those things you couldn't make up. It was the most pedantic type of academic nit-picking, with philosophers presenting papers on such topics as "Three Kinds of Timing." You would think it was a parody of academic conferences, but expressing that would have led to several journal articles on the differences between parody and analysis. Oy.
TheDudeDiogenes said...
Not exactly Friday, but I just finished calling my Governor, the State Speaker of the House, my State and federal Reps and Senators. In terms of State politics, I applauded Dems for opposing proposed cuts by Repubs, especially to Health and Human Services, and federally, I expressed my dismay with my Senators applauding Trump's actions in Syria, and myself applauded my Representative's (relatively) critical remarks of Trump's actions.

Chris said...


I taught the theory of exploitation this week...does that count?

David said...

1. Donated to the Washington State Democratic Party. This contribution is partly an expression of confidence in our new state Chair, Tina Podlodowski.

2. Exchanged messages with the state Chair about the Republican State Chair’s claim that they would spend $5 million for one state senate race this fall. I’m supporting, and have now officially endorsed (for the little that it is worth), the Democrat (Manka Dhingra) in this race.

3. Contacted a local school board director to find out about the open seat on the board. I was wondering if a good candidate has been recruited yet. I’m shopping around for a campaign to volunteer on, and the more local the better.


ONE MORE TIME

As you know, the tone of the comments on this blog lately has disturbed me.  It all reminds me of old time disputes among lefties in which every gathering of six or seven immediately splintered into three factions.  Let me explain why I am convinced that this wrangling is unproductive.

If the Google Counter is to be believed, this blog gets between 1500 and 2000 views a day.  Taking into consideration both those who visit it several times a day and those who visit it only every several days, I am guessing that maybe 3000 – 4000 people worldwide are in some sense regular readers.  That could be way off, of course.  Maybe most of the visits are from people looking to turn lead into gold, or thoughtful sufferers from gall stones seeking relief.  But let us be optimistic and say that my guess is correct.

Most, but by no means all, of those visitors are American.  The comments indicate a lively international readership.  Even so, surely two-thirds or more are American.  Now, almost all of those folks do not comment.  [I believe the modern term is “lurkers,” but I prefer to consider them polite readers.]  There are some ten or twelve who comment all the time.  Let us suppose that after extended and contentious dispute here, eight or nine of them can be brought to agree on some matter, such as what to think about the Democratic National Committee or whether the attention paid to possible connections between Russia and Trump’s circle of advisors is overblown.  Terrific.  You now have, let us say, enough right-thinking comrades to elect someone Class President of one of those toney Manhattan private schools that only admits fifteen rich kids a year.

But suppose you set your sights a little higher, say on Precinct Chair in a State Democratic Party or even, ambitiously, on a seat in a State Legislature.  Never mind a House seat or a Senate Seat!  Eight votes are not going to do it.  You are going to need all the blog readers who share your political orientation, construed most broadly, and lots and lots of others besides.  You are going to need some folks who think Nancy Pelosi is a saint, and other folks who just loved Hilary, and a lot of folks who simply hate Trump, even though they have never thought about single payer health care, let alone socialism.  The issues that you debate so heatedly on this blog, descending to insults when you just cannot bear it any more, will probably matter not at all to the tens of thousands of people whose votes will be indispensable for anything resembling victory.


So there is, I am sorry to have to say, something self-indulgent in these disputes, particularly in their heat.  I am not on the fence about many of these issues, as Chris seems to think.  I just do not think it is worth the effort to argue about them, when we need everyone on both sides of every debate if we are to assemble anything resembling a movement.

MY APOLOGIES

My life has been rather disrupted lately, with the result that I have been laggard with regard to Friday Lists.  Let us have some reports today and I will combine them with earlier reports to make one list.  Then I shall try to keep up in future weeks.  Sorry about that.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

SOME ADVICE FROM AN OLD HAND

I am very unhappy with the tone of the comments that are being posted on this blog.  For no reason at all, people have become abusive and insulting.  I understand that feelings are running high, none higher than mine, but there is no chance for a serious progressive movement in this country if you cannot talk courteously even to those whose political orientation is extremely close to your own.  People have differing experiences, differing concerns, differing interpretations of events whose meaning is often obscure.  Even if you are absolutely certain that you are right, you will have no political success at all unless you can unite with literally millions of others across the country.  Trust me, I am older than you are, your chances of finding ten or fifteen million people who agree with you about everything are zero.


So cut it out.

A NEW GIG

The Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University is an organization of retired professors, most but not all of them Columbia Emerita/i, who since 1988 have been actively involved in teaching in Columbia’s old and very famous general education program, usually referred to as The Core.  There are currently roughly thirty members of the Society.  Some while ago I was nominated for membership in the Society, and I have just received word that I have indeed been elected.  I am quite pleased both by the honor and by the opportunity this will offer for a re-entry into the Columbia community after some forty-six years. 

My re-introduction to Columbia will be a public lecture early next Fall, which I have tentatively titled “What Good is a Liberal Education?  A Radical Response.”  After that, we shall see how things develop.


I figure this should keep me busy at least until I am ninety, after which perhaps I will slow down a bit.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

I honestly don't know whether the people who control the Democratic Party are actively seeking to defeat progressives, are uninterested in electing any candidate who is progressive, or are misguided about how to win back control of the House.  Since I don't give money to the Party, but only directly to candidates, it makes very little difference in my behavior.  I am convinced that we should fight for every seat, and that we should support any candidate who is to the left of the incumbent, regardless of the odds.  There is strong evidence right now of a groundswell of enthusiasm on the left, and every percentage point we knock off the vote total of the Republican candidate feeds that enthusiasm, whether we win the election or not.

I think elaborate calculations of slipping in under the radar and not energizing the opposition are foolish, whether they are malign or not.  Do I know this to be true?  No.  My total personal experience with electoral politics was an unsuccessful run for School Committee in Northampton, MA in the Seventies [the nineteen-seventies, not the eighteen-seventies.]  But that is the operating assumption that will guide my own political activity, and considering the fact that I live in the benighted state of North Carolina, I should get plenty of experience fighting losing battles.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE HAS GOT TO GO

Yesterday, the Democrats came within 7 points of winning an unwinnable deep red House seat in Kansas, despite the fact that the DNC did nothing to help the Democratic candidate.

Where is Howard Dean's fifty state strategy when we need it?

MORE FREUD

The third lecture on Freud is on YouTube and can be viewed here.  I finally get to the Oedipus Complex and all that good stuff.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

SHAMEFUL PLEASURES

One hundred eighteen straight wins at FreeCell and counting.

Monday, April 10, 2017

WAIT FOR IT

The third Freud lecture is in the can, so to speak, and should be up on Wednesday.  Not everyone talks about Oedipus Rex and Jack and the Beanstalk in the same breath.

MYTHOLOGICAL PERAMBULATIONS

At 5:45 a.m., as I took my morning walk, I spent a few moments reminding myself of the myth of Oedipus in preparation for this afternoon's Freud lecture.  Low in the sky was Selene, the Greek moon goddess, full and resplendent, accompanied by her handmaiden Venus, the Morning Star.  It was a propitious omen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

WHILE I WAS AWAY

I posed a large and unanswerable question and then abruptly left town.  The result was a lengthy, thoughtful, extremely interesting discussion, enlivened by personal reflections on Chile, India, China, and the international agreements regulating a trans-Atlantic flight.  Clearly, I should leave town more often.

I posed the question in part as a reaction to a quotation from Noam Chomsky concerning U. S. and NATO installation of anti-ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe, and in part because I find myself again and again puzzled when I think about international affairs.  It is, of course, always open to me to respond to any international situation simply by asking where my preferences and sentiments lie, but when I ask what I ought to think, what is the right course of action or point of view, I come up against the same problem, which is that I cannot imagine what my standpoint ought to be.

For example, what ought I to think about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians it holds in bondage?  [And simply asking the question that way is wildly prejudicial, but never mind.]  Here are four possible answers:  (1) we should accept the current facts on the ground as established reality and proceed to reason from there;  (2)  we should take as our starting point the borders established at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war;  (3)  we should take as our starting point the political arrangements that existed before the 1947 Partition of Palestine;  (4)  We should take as our starting point the borders of the Kingdom of Israel and Judea between 1050 and 930 BCE.  There are committed partisans of all four responses.  The third and fourth, you will say, are fanciful, whereas the first and second need to be taken seriously.  But why?   Ought we to accept as legitimate the borders drawn in the Middle East by European diplomats when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the Treaty of Sèvres?  Why?  And so on and on.

The source of our befuddlement, as I see it, is this:  All of us in one way or another function intellectually with some version of what political philosophers call social contract theory [save for anarchists, but that is the null hypothesis so far as these questions are concerned.]  That is to say, we understand political legitimacy to be grounded in a unanimous collective agreement binding on all those who have entered into it [and their descendants, but let us leave that problem to one side for the moment.]  The original social contract theorists were quite clear that sovereigns [i.e. kings] were in a state of nature with respect to one another inasmuch as they had not entered into a social contract, and as Hobbes so evocatively expressed it, in the absence of a social contract we are left with the war of all against all.

Modern versions of social contract theory, like that of Rawls, leave us with the same problem, the work of people like Tom Pogge notwithstanding.  So, to put it simply, there is no answer to the question I posed.  I do not mean there is no way of enforcing an answer.  I mean that there is no answer.  The matter is what mathematicians would call undetermined.

Now, about those Tar Heels.


FRIDAY LIST 10

First things first.  Let us hear it for the Friday lists.  I called my Representative to ask why he had not signed on to the call for Medicare for All, but it turned out he had finally done so, so I thanked him, via the young thing who answered the phone.  Since Time Warner Cable doesn't charge for each call, I wasted a moment calling Senator Tillis and urged him to vote against breaking the filibuster against Gorsuch.  Fat chance!

What about all of you?

I'M HOME

I got home yesterday after a brief, exhausting, but quite moving visit to see old friends and colleagues.  There is a good deal to catch up with on this blog, and later today I shall begin the process, but first I must go shop for dinner and do my laundry.  Back soon.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A CHALLENGE TO MY READERS

In recent weeks, there has been a good deal of extended and sometimes heated comment on this blog about political, military, and international affairs.  Today, I am going to pose a question and invite responses.  Let me say two things at the outset.  First, this is a serious question, not a rhetorical question assuming an answer.  Second, I am going to tip my hand by saying that I do not think there actually is a defensible answer to the question.  The question sounds perfectly comprehensible, and much of the commentary here seems to presuppose one answer or another to it, but in fact I do not think the question has an answer, and that fact is extremely important for the sorts of discussions we have been having.

Before I pose the question, I will tell you that tomorrow morning, before dawn, I shall leave for an overnight trip to Amherst, Massachusetts.  The occasion is a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, a program that, as many of you know, I played a role in establishing and running for its first twelve years.  I shall return to Chapel Hill early Saturday afternoon, at which point I shall respond to whatever comments this question has elicited.

Here is the question:  What, in your view, is the appropriate, or right, or justifiable, or progressive, or suitable or defensible shape of the world order?  What ought the borders of nations be?  Which nations ought to come into existence or go out of existence or continue to exist?  

Should Tibet be a part of China or an independent nation?  Should the former Soviet Socialist Republics be reincorporated into Russia or not, or perhaps should some of them be reincorporated and others not?  Should the Czech Republic and Slovakia be reunited?  Should Hawaii and Alaska be states of the United States or not?  What about Texas?  The states formed from the Louisiana Purchase?  Should the lands of the Native American nations be separated out from the United States?  Should the Middle Eastern nations created at the end of World War I continue to exist with their current borders?  Should the Kurds have their own nation?  What about the Zulu?  The Xhosa?  

Should these matters be decided by the United Nations?  By the General Assembly or by the Security Council?  Should each nation have its own military forces and be responsible for their size, maintenance, and use, or should there be a world military force superseding national forces?  If these matters should be decided by the United Nations [or some other world body], who should have a seat on that body?  All the present members?  All the present members plus the Kurds?  The Palestinians?  The Arapahoe?  The Chechens?


I am quite serious about this question, and I urge you to try to answer it, from whatever ideological or geopolitical perspective you wish.  Obviously, none of us has the slightest capacity to actually change the world order, so the question is for that reason purely hypothetical.  But some answer or other clearly underlies the comments that have been posted lately on this blog, so consider this an invitation to bring your implicit answers into the open.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

WOW!

Edmund Wilson and David Palmeter have simply terrific comments on my previous post, a reply to Talha.  Edmund Wilson's historical parallels are terrific, and I think David Palmeter is spot on.  Thank you both!

DELICIOUS

This morning, we were scheduled for the first showing of the apartment we are selling.  Having transformed it so that it does not look as though actual people live here, we were waiting to clear out, and I was idling away the time by surfing the web, when I came upon this interview of Roger Stone by some right-wing conspiracy monger, in which Stone claimed that Jared Kushner was leaking anti-Steve Bannon tidbits to Joe Scarbrough!  This was too delicious for words -- sort of like a Soap Opera in which you hate all the characters so much that no matter which one of them loses out, you are happy.  So off Susie and I went to hang out at a restaurant during the showing, where I checked via my IPhone the latest gossip and discovered that Bannon had been removed from  the National Security Council!  Whereupon my real estate agent texted me that the showing had been postponed until tomorrow.

I mean, you cannot make this stuff up.

A REPLY TO TALHA

Talha asks: “Well if you do continue to engage on this, Prof. Wolff, would be interesting to see your reaction to the following from Chomsky - will it also meet the incomprehending straw man treatment you've given to Chris et al. here?”

I followed the link and found this text of a radio interview.  It is long, but I give it in full so that there can be no question of selective quotation:

“AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour, Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author, institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Noam Chomsky, I’d like to ask you about something that’s been in the news a lot lately. Obviously, all the cable channels, that’s all they talk about these days, is the whole situation of Russia’s supposed intervention in American elections. For a country that’s intervened in so many governments and so many elections around the world, that’s kind of a strange topic. But I know you’ve referred to this as a joke. Could you give us your view on what’s happening and why there’s so much emphasis on this particular issue?
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s a pretty remarkable fact that—first of all, it is a joke. Half the world is cracking up in laughter. The United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like, institutes military dictatorships. Simply in the case of Russia alone—it’s the least of it—the U.S. government, under Clinton, intervened quite blatantly and openly, then tried to conceal it, to get their man Yeltsin in, in all sorts of ways. So, this, as I say, it’s considered—it’s turning the United States, again, into a laughingstock in the world.
So why are the Democrats focusing on this? In fact, why are they focusing so much attention on the one element of Trump’s programs which is fairly reasonable, the one ray of light in this gloom: trying to reduce tensions with Russia? That’s—the tensions on the Russian border are extremely serious. They could escalate to a major terminal war. Efforts to try to reduce them should be welcomed. Just a couple of days ago, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock, came out and said he just can’t believe that so much attention is being paid to apparent efforts by the incoming administration to establish connections with Russia. He said, "Sure, that’s just what they ought to be doing."
So, meanwhile, this one topic is the primary locus of concern and critique, while, meanwhile, the policies are proceeding step by step, which are extremely destructive and harmful. So, you know, yeah, maybe the Russians tried to interfere in the election. That’s not a major issue. Maybe the people in the Trump campaign were talking to the Russians. Well, OK, not a major point, certainly less than is being done constantly. And it is a kind of a paradox, I think, that the one issue that seems to inflame the Democratic opposition is the one thing that has some justification and reasonable aspects to it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, because the Democrats feel that that’s the reason, somehow, that they lost the election. Interesting that James Comey this week said he is investigating Trump campaign collusion with Russia, when it was Comey himself who could have—might well have been partly responsible for Hillary Clinton’s defeat, when he said that he was investigating her, while, we now have learned, at the same time he was investigating Donald Trump, but never actually said that.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, you can understand why the Democratic Party managers want to try to find some blame for the fact—for the way they utterly mishandled the election and blew a perfect opportunity to win, handed it over to the opposition. But that’s hardly a justification for allowing the Trump policies to slide by quietly, many of them not only harmful to the population, but extremely destructive, like the climate change policies, and meanwhile focus on one thing that could become a step forward, if it was adjusted to move towards serious efforts to reduce growing and dangerous tensions right on the Russian border, where they could blow up. NATO maneuvers are taking place hundreds of yards from the Russian border. The Russian jet planes are buzzing American planes. This—something could get out of hand very easily. Both sides, meanwhile, are building up their military forces, adding—the U.S. is—one thing that the Russians are very much concerned about is the so-called anti-ballistic missile installation that the U.S. is establishing near the Russian border, allegedly to protect Europe from nonexistent Iranian missiles. Nobody seriously believes that. This is understood to be a first strike threat. These are serious issues. People like William Perry, who has a distinguished career and is a nuclear strategist and is no alarmist at all, is saying that we’re back to the—this is one of the worst moments of the Cold War, if not worse. That’s really serious. And efforts to try to calm that down would be very welcome. And we should bear in mind it’s the Russian border. It’s not the Mexican border. There’s no Warsaw Pact maneuvers going on in Mexico. And that’s a border that the Russians are quite reasonably sensitive about. They’ve practically been destroyed several times the last century right through that region.”

Not surprisingly, I agree with a good deal that Noam has to say here, although in a bit I shall register an important disagreement.  But I do not understand the thrust of Talha’s comment.  My first thought is an old joke from my childhood, about The Lone Ranger and Tonto:  “The Lone Ranger and Tonto are watching a horde of Indian braves bear down on them in full battle fury. “Looks like we’re in trouble, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger to his pal. “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?” Tonto responds...”

The world may be laughing at the leaders of the Democratic Party or at TV pundits or at Republicans or at American foreign policy experts, but they are not laughing at me.  I have been speaking publicly against America’s interference in and overthrowing of foreign governments since 1960, which is seven years before Noam spoke publicly about the subject.  I humbly acknowledge that I made no public statements in 1953 about the CIA’s overthrow of Mosaddegh in Iran and America’s installation of the Puppet Shah Pahlevi, but I was only nineteen at the time and worried about finishing my undergraduate honors thesis.  Have my protests had any measurable effect on American policy?  Of course not, but then neither have Noam’s, and he is world-famous, perhaps the best know public intellectual in the world today.  We do what we can do.

Is Russian interference in our election a really big deal?  Nope, considering the fact that they probably had relatively little effect.  Why then do I have so much to say about it, and about the possible collusion of the Trump campaign in that effort?  For two reasons:  First, because Trump is vulnerable on that point, and I am delighted to exploit any vulnerability he may exhibit, even including his penny-ante self-enrichment, which probably amounts to less than the cost of one stealth bomber; and Second, because I really believe that our only hope of making this a marginally less terrible country is through the ballot box, and anything that interferes with that process is anathema to me.  Is Russian meddling then more serious than voter suppression?  Good God, no.  The former possibly had some hard to measure effect on the recent election.  The latter has transformed parts of this country, and we can count in the hundreds of thousands and perhaps the millions the number of votes it has cost progressives. 

Is Noam correct about the reasons why the Democratic Party has focused so heavily on this story line?  Probably so, but again I would ask Talha:  “What do you mean ‘we’, White Man?”

Noam is just wrong, by the way, about one thing that is actually important.  He says, “So, meanwhile, this one topic is the primary locus of concern and critique, while, meanwhile, the policies are proceeding step by step, which are extremely destructive and harmful.”  The implication is that Democrats have been focusing on the Russia thing while ignoring really harmful policies being put in place by the Trump Administration.  But that just isn’t so.  Trump has thus far done so many bad things that it is difficult to keep up with them, but the two most immediately terrible, the immigration ban and the health care bill, have triggered an astonishing level of public protest on the left, protest fully covered in the media and supported by many, many elected Democrats.  I say “most immediately” because Trump’s attack on the environment is in the long run arguably even worse, and though it has had a fair amount of negative coverage, it has not as yet provoked the same level of public outcry.

I come finally to the point on which I disagree with Noam most strongly, a point that he himself seems to emphasize more than any other in the interview quoted above – Trump’s efforts to seek a rapprochement with Putin.  Very early in the interview, Noam says this:  “So why are the Democrats focusing on this? In fact, why are they focusing so much attention on the one element of Trump’s programs which is fairly reasonable, the one ray of light in this gloom: trying to reduce tensions with Russia?”   He goes on to detail some of the serious dangers posed by Russian/American conflict, dangers that have in part been exacerbated by American/NATO actions.

I agree completely on the dangers, and on America’s role in the exacerbation of the tensions between Russia and America, but I think Noam allows himself to be misled into characterizing what Trump appears to be doing as “trying to reduce tensions with Russia.”  That description presupposes that Trump is operating, indeed is mentally capable of operating, with some familiar version of the world view that has characterized America’s global military and foreign policy since the end of World War Two.  Over that seventy year period, Democratic and Republican Presidents alike [as well as the extended community of military and foreign policy “experts”] have operated on the assumption that America and Russia are engaged in a full-scale competition for imperial hegemony on the world stage.  Confronting one another with world-destroying arsenals of nuclear weapons, the two imperial powers have jockeyed for competitive advantage, now one, now the other approaching closer to the edge of mutual disaster with provocative actions and reactions.  Noam seems to have construed Trump’s connections with Russia, his statements about Putin, and the connections of members of his inner circle with Russia as evidence that he has made a considered decision to de-escalate the conflict, and since that is clearly desirable, he characterizes it as “the one ray of light in this gloom.”  But I am more and more convinced that Trump is cozying up to Russia [I do not know how else to describe it] for financial and other reasons that have no grounding at all either in a conventional conception of world affairs or in any alternative conception.  I leave to one side Steve Bannon’s conception of world affairs, which really does seem to be a coherent alternative view, and one that is, if anything, more malign than the one that has shaped American policy for three quarters of a century.


Because I view the situation in this fashion, I am fearful of miscalculations on the part of both Trump and Putin that could lead to an increase, not a decrease, in the risk of nuclear war, which would be a world-ending catastrophe.