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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION

I should like to initiate a discussion on this blog of a question that has for a long time puzzled and concerned me.  To put it as simply as I can: What should be the overall foreign and military policy of the United States?  In order to engage fruitfully with this question, we need to specify its underlying assumptions.  Let me state the three assumptions I shall make:

1.   I begin by taking the rest of the world as it is now, not as it would be had the foreign and military policy of the United States been markedly different in the last half century.

2.   I assume that America is a capitalist economy in an advanced stage of technological and financial development, not, for example, a socialist society.

3.  I assume that it would be possible, against all the evidence and everything I know, for an elected Administration to make fundamental changes in American foreign and military policy, even if those changes severely damage the economic interests of America’s great corporations.

The third assumption carries us into the realm of fantasy, I know, and afterward, it might be interesting to ask a quite different question, namely what the foreign and military policy of a socialist America ought to be [although that too takes us into the land of fantasy.]

I pose this question because most of the really useful thinking on the left concentrates on domestic policy, for a number of structural and historical reasons.   I recognize that many readers will disagree with this assertion, but I do not believe that most of what is considered left criticism of American foreign and military policy proceeds from a carefully thought out response to the question I am posing.

What are the possible answers to my question?  I can see at least five.

First, the default answer is that America should continue to pursue the basic outlines of the policy it has pursued, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, over the last seventy years.  That is to say, America should act as an imperial hegemon advancing the interests of world capitalism.

Second, America should continue to act as an imperial hegemon, but instead use its economic and military power to advance socially and economically progressive policies abroad, even when doing so damages the profitability of American corporations.

Third, America should seek to vest its military power, and that of its allies and enemies, in a world state or organization charged with maintaining the peace and pursuing whatever social and economic policies the world community of nations can agree on.

Four, America should withdraw its military forces from the more than one hundred nations in which they are now stationed, reduce its expenditure on military forces appropriately, and reshape its remaining military forces to serve purely defensive missions.  It should use the size and reach of its economy to serve and protect the interests of Americans, and leave the rest of the world to whichever imperial hegemons emerge to take America’s place.

And Five, America should adopt the “Fortress America” stance of the fourth option, but maintain sufficient military assets to project its force, on a case by case basis, whenever and wherever considerations of morality and progressive socio-economic principle suggest that intervention would be beneficial.

Given the assumptions within whose scope this question is posed, my initial inclination is to opt for the second or fifth answer, but I confess I am quite uncertain.  I am also uncertain that this is a useful theoretical exercise, but I cannot articulate a more useful one.


What do all of you think?

A RESPONSE TO DML

DML writes:

“I will be there!

I am curious what you think about some of the criticisms of the march that have been popping up:
1. Its theme is too broad, so the message is too muddled.
2. Calling it a "women's march" alienates too many and distracts from the anti-Trump flavor of it. (#2 kind of contradicts #1).
3. Its too frivolous - women knitting pink "pussyhats" will make the march look not serious and turn people off.
4. Its too white.

All of these are concerns I've seen aired in in major outlets like the Washington Post and NY Mag. I've read stories of people not going to the march because of one of the above four reasons. And more dismayingly, I personally know people that are progressive, and politically active, that are not going to the march because of some combination of the above four reasons.

This last point is the most dismaying for me. I know a number of smart, politically engaged people that just don't think Trump is ushering in neo-Fascism. The organizers are saying its not an "anti-Trump" march but when one of my skeptical friends asks me to articulate in a few words what the march is all about - "anti-Trump" is the best reason I can give. And that is certainly the reason why I will be there.”

These criticisms reveal two things:  First, the armchair theorizing nature of the critics, and Second a deep misunderstanding of the nature of politics.  Look, the Women’s March on Washington began as a FaceBook post by two women who were dismayed by the prospect of a virulently anti-woman Trump presidency.  One day after they posted on FaceBook, 10,000 women had declared themselves in!  Then it really ballooned, and they have been trying to stay on top of what they hatched ever since.  The protest did not emerge from a seminar or planning session with carefully calculated messaging designed to serve a diverse constituency.  This is the way real political protest works.  I get the impression the critics are sitting in judgment on any groundswell efforts that may crop up, carefully evaluating them, passing judgment on them, rejecting this one for being insufficiently multi-ethnic, that one for dealing with surface concerns rather than addressing the true underlying problems, waiting until a protest comes along that comports with their refined sensibilities.

If they don’t like this one, fine.  Let them get off their asses and organize another one.  There is no limit to the number of protests allowable, at least not yet.  Better yet, they can organize a local version of the Women’s March and infuse it with all the characteristics they think lacking in the national march.  They can change the name, if they wish.  But let us see them do something, not just sniff and say that this march does not meet their standards.


I actually have no idea what the agenda of the Women’s March is, and I do not care.  It is anti-Trump, it is on the left as opposed to the right, it will embarrass the Republicans and embolden the Democrats, and it is SOMETHING to do.  That is quite enough for me.

A TREE ROLLS DOWN THE HILLSIDE

As you all know, I shall be attending the Women’s March in Washington DC this Saturday, the day after the Inauguration.  Rain is predicted for the Inauguration, but our march will have partly sunny weather.  A sign?  If a lightning bolt comes out of the rainy sky and kills Trump and whichever Supreme Court justice is administering the oath, that will be a sign.  Should that happen, I will forego my lifelong atheism and start attending mass. 

From time to time, I check in with the official webpage of the march to see what’s up. So-called Sister Marches will be held around the nation.  At last count, 386 Sister Marches are scheduled, and an “estimated” 735,070 people have said they will attend one or another of them [what it means to estimate something to the fifth place, I do not know.]  The Mother March, which I shall attend, now predicts roughly 200,000 attendees, so we are closing in on one million nationally.

This is huge, and this morning, as I walked, I ran over in my mind the various ways in which these marches will matter.  Let me remind you, by the way, of my oft-repeated observation that political change is like a landslide, not like brain surgery.  This does not yet qualify as a landslide, but it will certainly alter the hillside a bit.

The first and most obvious significance of the march will be its size relative to the crowd at the inauguration.  Crowd sizes are notoriously difficult to estimate, but if the nation-wide marches equal or surpass the Inauguration crowd, that will be the top story on television, and it will contribute to the delegitimation of Trump.  It doesn’t matter who marches. I guarantee that some of them will be people who voted for Trump, and some will probably be people who wandered in thinking it was a crowd going to a football game.  It does not matter.  It will be a thing, an event, one more uprooted tree rolling down the hillside.

The second importance of the marches will be their effect on already elected officials.  That many people marching in your district will have an impact.  Once again, it does not matter very much which slogans and signs the marchers carry.  Politics is a blunt instrument, rather like playing the piano with mittens on.  If a Representative has a big march in his or district, it will have an effect.  In Republican districts, it might even encourage a potential candidate to run for office.

And finally, the third and biggest significance of these marches is that they are recruiting tools for political action.  All across the country, they will put people in touch with one another who want to mobilize on the left.  Lists will be created, relationships established, ideas shared. 

As for me, I will be the old guy lingering on the fringes of the crowd, cheering from time to time and trying to take a few pictures with his cellphone.


I shall report when I get home.

MYSTIFICATION

Look, here's the thing.  I have already written about mystification.  What I have to say can be found in Chapters Two and Three of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  Speaking without a smidgen of false modesty, I will say that I think that little book is, pound for pound, the best thing I have ever written.  It is readily available with four mouse clicks:  First, a click on the link to box.net, then a click to get to Archived Essays and Tutorials, then a click to get to page two of the listed items, and finally a click to open the .pdf file of the entire little book.  It is really, really good.  If you are interested in mystification, take a look.  To make the medicine go down easier, by the way, I open Chapter Three with an old Jewish joke about Mrs. Feinschmeck's blintzes.  It is an easy read, as these things go.

Monday, January 16, 2017

IT IS A SIGN

Rain is predicted for noon in DC on Inauguration day, but no rain for the protest march the next day.  The number of people who say they are coming on the 21st is up to 194,000, and twice as many bus permits have been issued for that event as have been issued for the Inauguration itself.   Up to 700,000 people are expected at "sister marches" around the country, and there will be 55 marches overseas.  Donald Trump may turn out to be the best mobilizer of the Left ever.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

HOW TO RUIN A GOOD JOKE

Now that you have all had a chance to view the three minute clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, let me ruin it for you by explaining its deeper meaning [yes, Virginia, it has a deeper meaning.  For serious Marxists, everything has a deeper meaning.]  What makes the scene work, comedically, is the utter failure of the Anarcho-syndicalist cowflop collecting peasants to understand King Arthur, and his utter inability to understand them.  The source of the missed communication is that they exist at different stages in the historical development of the social relations of production, and hence their understanding of social reality is encoded in different and incompatible ideological rationalisations of the ruling class.  [of course, what also makes the scene work comedically is that the writers of the Monty Python sketches have pitch perfect senses of humor, but that goes without saying.]

The impossibility of someone living in Feudal England understanding the laws of motion of a capitalist economy also, by the way, demonstrates that the knowledge conditions posited by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice under what he calls the "veil of ignorance" are epistemologically incoherent, as I demonstrated in my book Understanding Rawls,  But the Monty Python crew, being essentially overgrown Oxbridge undergraduates, probably did not realize that.  [If they studied at Cambridge rather than Oxford, they might have taken their understanding of anarchism from my In Defense of Anarchism, because for some while it was required reading for the Moral Science Tripos.]

if you would like me to ruin one of your favorite Marx Brothers sketches, feel free to ask.

EVERYTHING I KNOW, IN ONE 3 MINUTE MONTY PYTHON CLIP

Watch this and you can skip my Marx lectures when I record them.