Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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Sunday, May 28, 2017


I have done the Sunday TIMES crossword puzzle and both the 5 x 5 and 7 x 7 KenKens, so it is time for some idle speculation.  I trust everyone understands that I have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of any of the subjects I shall be speculating about.  Pay attention at your peril!  Here goes.  I write with an air of certainty simply because speculation is no fun if it is hedged round with caveats.

It is now clear that Jared Kushner really did approach the Russians with a proposal to use their Embassy equipment to communicate with the Kremlin.  This follows from the fact that H. R. McMaster and John Flynn have publicly stated that there is nothing untoward about the action.  If this were a Russian trick, they would be condemning the media for publishing false stories.

Why did he do this so close to the time when the Trump team would take over the government anyway?  It is not because he and his colleagues in the Trump White House are inexperienced or stupid or reckless or impatient.  And it certainly is not because he and the Trump team have any substantive national policies that they wish to pursue.  They don’t.

I think I know the answer.  Here it is [for what it is worth.]  Trump and Kushner are real estate speculators.  They are not ideologues, they are not right wing or left wing or middle of the road, they are real estate speculators.  That is who they have been all their lives and it is all they know or care about, leaving aside sociopathic narcissism and all that.

After Trump’s serial bankruptcies, he was forced to seek foreign and dodgy financing for his schemes, because American banks would no longer lend to him.  So he went deeply into debt with DeutscheBank, with a Chinese government owned bank, and with Russian oligarchs hand in glove with Putin.  Kushner took an enormous flyer in high profile Manhattan real estate, paying 1.8 billion for 666 Fifth Avenue at a time when New York real estate was booming.  He borrowed enormous sums at very disadvantageous terms, gambling on high rents and occupancy rates in excess of 90%.  Now, the real estate market is weak, and the building has an occupancy rate of 70%.  He is very close to default on the loans, and has been trying desperately to refinance.  He wanted a secret channel of communication to the Russians because he needs refinancing, and he needs it fast.

Why would the Russians be interested in helping him?  Putin has imperial ambitions.  He seeks to recapture at least some of the former glory of the Soviet Union.  But he is hamstrung by the weakness of the Russian economy.  Russia is a Petrostate, propped up by its oil sales.  Three or four years ago, when crude was selling on the world market for ~$80 a barrel, he had the means to throw his weight around in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, despite the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU.  But oil is now selling at half that price, roughly $40 a barrel or even less, and the sanctions are hurting.  Alternative energy sources are booming, the world economy is plodding along with slow growth, and high oil prices are not likely to reappear any time soon.

Kushner and Trump need Russian money, and Putin needs an easing of the sanctions.  That, I suggest, is why Putin has been wooing Trump camp figures, and that is why Kushner wanted a secure communications channel to the Kremlin.


Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I saw a new film about the life of Emily Dickinson starring Cynthia Nixon.  It is a dark, slow moving, deadly earnest movie in which Nixon’s voice is heard at many points reading one or another of Dickinson’s poems.  Despite a fine performance by Nixon, I left the theater profoundly disappointed, and yet at the same time aware that perhaps what I wanted to see in the movie is essentially impossible for a director or writer to communicate.  Let me explain.

Emily Dickinson led a quiet, outwardly uneventful life in the New England college town of Amherst – one of its few tourist destinations is the Dickinson home, which I, like virtually everyone else in town, visited.  She never married, she never had a love affair, so far as we know, and only on rare occasions did she venture beyond Amherst even to the nearby city of Springfield.  She was also the author of one thousand eight hundred poems, and is arguably the greatest poet the United States has ever produced.  She had a rich, deep, complex mind and as complicated a relationship to the Christian religion as any poet who has ever lived.  And yes, I include in that estimate John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The surface simplicity of her poetry is as deceptive as the surface simplicity of a Bach Invention.

The movie does a rather good job of portraying Dickinson’s rebellion against the rigoristic piety of nineteenth century New England Protestantism, but it does absolutely nothing to explain, or even puzzle over, the sources and dimensions of her poems.  There is a great temptation, of course, to fill this post with endless quotations from her poems, a temptation I shall resist.  Let me cite just one phrase.  In a poem ostensibly about the pink-tinged clouds one sees as the sun goes down, she writes ”angels wrestled there.”  Where we see quiet natural beauty, Dickinson saw blood sports.  If you pause and think about that fact, you will perhaps begin to gain some insight into her poetic vision.

The director makes some obvious and inevitable choices:  after Dickinson dies and her coffin is being put in the horse-drawn hearse, we hear Nixon’s voice:  “Because I could not stop for death/Death kindly stopped for me.”  The film ends with Nixon reading “This is my letter to the world/That never wrote to me.”  But it also makes some really appalling choices.  When Dickinson is given her brother’s new baby to hold, she looks down at the infant and says, “I am nobody, who are you?/Are you nobody too?”  This has got to be the wrongest reading of a great poem ever offered.

How can we communicate, in a film, or indeed in a book, the creative process of a great poet, a great composer, a great novelist, or a great painter?  The splendid movie, Amadeus, succeeds brilliantly as a movie, but only because it is really about Salieri, not Mozart.  Mozart’s creative genius is treated in the film as incomprehensible – Salieri says God is dictating the notes to Mozart.

Perhaps I ask too much.  It must be sufficient that a movie, as the word suggests, move us.  If we could explain how Dickinson did it, then we could all do it, and that, alas, is a blessing that New England’s God has chosen not to bestow.

Saturday, May 27, 2017


I have wondered about this.


I am put in mind about the story of The Little Juggler.  What can I possibly add to the celebration of the flood of news that keeps me, and tens of millions of others, glued to our TV sets or IPhones?  I have never even met a newspaper reporter, although a good college friend went on, after we had lost touch, to work for the TIMES.  But there is one aspect of this complex story that fascinates me, and a personal experience from thirty years ago may illuminate it a bit.  I refer to the leaks.

In 1986, I spent five weeks in Johannesburg, South Africa lecturing on Marx in the Philosophy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits.  The chairman of the department was Jonathan Suzman, the nephew of a famous anti-apartheid activist Member of Parliament named Helen Suzman.  The Suzmans were a wealthy family, and Jonathan belonged to a toney downtown private men’s club called the Rand Club.  After I had been there three or four weeks, he invited me to dine at the club with him and a small group of prominent men – some bankers and corporate executives, the editor of one of the leading English language newspapers [not The Daily Mail.]  I borrowed a tuxedo [only the third time I had worn one] and went off to see how the one percent lived.  There were six or eight of us in a private dining room, served by quiet, efficient, deferential Black men doing their best to be invisible.

At this time, the government was carrying out active raids against groups of fighters based in Botswana who were members of the military wing of the African National Congress, uMkhonto we Sizwe.  The newspaper editor gave those of us at the dinner some not-for-publication information about bombing raids carried out by the South African air force against suspected camps inside Botswana.  A lively discussion ensued about whether the raids would be successful, where they would strike next, and the size of the rebel forces.

I sat there, utterly mystified by the ease with which these men spoke about secret matters in the presence of Black waiters, who, during the conversation, continued to refill our coffee cups and clear away dishes.  Then I realized the truth: these smart, well-educated, politically clued up men simply did not see the waiters, they did not exist for them save as extensions of their dining needs.  It was exactly like Mitt Romney’s famous 47% remark, made at a supposedly closed dinner and recorded on a cellphone by one of the waiters.  Since I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, I amused myself by wondering which of the waiters was the ANC operative charged with reporting everything that was said at the dinner.

As the flood of leaks continues, I find myself wondering who is doing the leaking.  There were very few people in the Oval Office when Trump blurted out top secret information to the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister [the Oval Office, I am told, is actually not very big, and will not hold large gatherings.]  The leak must have come from one of those few people present.  You do not need to conduct an extensive investigation to make a short list of suspects.  Are there people working in the White House who are as invisible to Trump and his “senior advisors” as those waiters were to my dinner partners at the Rand Club?  Some flunky must be tasked with actually typing up the notes taken by some other flunky at the meeting.  My understanding is that when a new administration come into office, everyone in the old White House right down to the chef, the bathroom attendants, and cleaning staff is fired and new people are brought in.  These leaks must be coming from supposed loyalists.

As our distinguished President likes to ask, What the hell is going on?

Friday, May 26, 2017


I know it is juvenile and fifth grade of me, but this warmed my heart.


I have been increasingly distressed by the direction of American public affairs, and for the first time in my long life, I am fearful for the survival of such democracy as we have in this nation.  I do not want to argue about this, I am not interested in being told that I should have been this worried earlier, I simply want to say that for as long as I continue to live, I intend to continue to struggle for what I believe and for the people whom I identify as my comrades.  I honestly do not know whether we shall win out in the end, but the alternative, which is to decline into passivity, is unacceptable to me.

We are surrounded and confronted by such raw cruelty, brutality, greed, and -- yes, alas -- acquiescence that the struggle will be difficult and the outcome quite uncertain.

I will continue to blog about the public world, and also about the ideas that have been my companion and inspiration for a lifetime.  I welcome your presence, your comments, your commitment to shared goals and principles.

These are hard times.


If I understand the tidbits of news now emerging in the newspapers and on cable news, FBI Director James Comey pursued his investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails on the basis of a bogus "email" produced by Russian intelligence and inserted into a drop of hacked emails.  Comey did so knowing that the email was bogus, thereby almost certainly throwing the election to Trump, and then Trump fired him.

Can this all be true?

Thursday, May 25, 2017


I trust everyone will agre that Noam Chomsky does not need me either to explain his views or to defend them.  My suggestion is that anyone whose curiosity was provoked by my post should first watch the video and then discuss what Chomsky said, not what I said.  The comments posted here make it clear that my effort to summarize what Chomsky said was unsuccessful, so I am going to bow out.  It is not as though he has been shy about setting forth his views!  :)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Yesterday afternoon, I wrote a brief message linking to a video of a lengthy lecture given by Noam Chomsky in Paris four years ago.  In this extended post, I am going to lay out what I understood to be the core of Noam’s remarks.  Why on earth am I doing this?  The answer is this:  What I care most about in the world is deep, clear ideas, elegantly expounded so that one can see and appreciate their power, simplicity, and beauty.  Chomsky’s life work in the field of Linguistics has all of these qualities.  As I listened to him, I could see, through his words, the power, the elegant simplicity, of his theories, and so I want to try to share with you what I heard.

Now, let us be clear.  I know next to nothing about Linguistics.  I am a complete novice on the subject.  I may very well get something wrong, and I will surely fail to capture the complexity of Noam’s thought.  But it is beautiful, in much the same way that the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason is beautiful, in the way that great mathematics is beautiful. 

Chris writes, “In 2003 Charlie Rose asked Chomsky "if this was your last day on earth, would you like what is mentioned about you to focus on your political works or linguistic contributions".  Chomsky, shrugging and laughing said "to tell you the truth I honestly don't care".  I can easily believe that Noam said that, and indeed meant it.  This post is in no way an attempt to prioritize his Linguistic theories over his political commentary.  It is simply an appreciation, an homage, to the beauty of his ideas.

Chomsky’s theories overturned several widely held assumptions about the origins of language, about language acquisition, and about the purpose of language.  As I see it, his analyses rest on three very simple but powerful observations.  First, grammatical sentences are potentially infinite, or at least unbounded, in length.  There is no limit to how long a sentence can be.  [At a minimum, one can, by simple concatenation, extend a sentence indefinitely by adding “and” followed by another phrase.]   It follows from this that the ability to form infinitely long grammatical sentences could not have developed little by little, through extension of already existing well-formed sentences.  Thus, it could not be that first human beings acquired the ability to form simple sentences.  Then, through experience or genetic mutation, they acquired the ability to form somewhat longer sentences.  And so forth until finally they had mastered the ability to form sentences of unlimited length.  It follows from this, in contradiction to very widely held views, that human language ability is not a progressive enlargement of animal communication capacities.

Think about that for a moment.  We are all familiar with the ability of animals to communicate:  bees doing their tail-wagging “dance” to report on the location of pollen, whales and elephants “talking” over long distances at low frequencies, hunting packs of dogs or prides of lions communicating as they quite intelligently pursue prey [as I have seen them do on safari].  The paleontological record shows that early hominids had the ability to make simple stone tools as long as a million years ago, an ability obviously transmitted from generation to generation by some sort of communication.  What more natural than to see human language as a slow evolution from these behavioral skills?  But Chomsky’s point, made several times in the lecture, is that this must be wrong, because no extension or evolution of these animal behaviors could lead to the capacity for infinitely long strings of symbols.  All the available archaeological evidence suggests that language was actually created, invented, or developed no more than 100,000 years ago, probably in pretty much its present form.

Chomsky’s second observation, famously deployed in his classic critique of the behavioral theory of language acquisition advanced by B. F. Skinner, is that it is impossible to explain a child’s language acquisition purely as a response to external stimuli.  This is true for three reasons.  First, if we take seriously Skinner’s notion of stimulus and response, there are simply not enough stimuli [in the form of uttered speech] in the life experience of a little baby to account for the acquisition of language at the age of one or two.  Second, no amount of stimulus in the form of speech in the vicinity of the baby can explain the child’s eventual development of the ability to form new sentences that he or she has not heard before, and perhaps could not have heard before.  Third, the actual sensory environment of the child is what Chomsky, quoting William James, calls in the lecture a “buzzing, blooming confusion,” and it is simply impossible on Skinnerian terms to explain how babies unerringly pick out of that auditory chaos the instances of language whose presence Skinner supposed serve as the stimuli in a stimulus/response behavioral event.

Chomsky’s third observation – with which I was not already familiar and which struck me as extraordinarily powerful – is that if we take from the theory of evolution the basic insight that the human capacity for language must be grounded in some genetic mutation, then it is obvious that this mutation occurred in the genome of a single individual, who was thereby equipped with the capacity for language acquisition and use.  But in order for this mutation to survive, it must have conferred some competitive advantage to the individual.  And since he or she would be the only human being in the world with the capacity for language, the fundamental adaptive advantage of the mutation must have derived from the new ability to think, NOT from an improved ability to communicate!!  BECAUSE WITH WHOM WOULD HE OR SHE COMMUNICATE?

Chomsky now assumes [taking his guidance from Galileo, rather elegantly] that the mutation giving rise to the capacity for language must have been very simple.  He suggests in the lecture that the most elementary, primitive innovation conferred by the mutation was the ability to take two elements and form from them a simple unordered set.  He names this operation “merge,” and with considerable formal flair, he proceeds to show how the operation of merge can, recursively, give rise to sentences of any desired length and syntactic complexity.

Well, there is vastly more in the lecture, which in turn was only a cursory overview of a lifework.  But perhaps this is enough to indicate something of its elegance and beauty.

Noam is a classy dude.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


I just spent several hours watching this lecture by Noam Chomsky on Linguistics at the science branch of the University of Paris, which is just next to the Institut de Monde Arabe near my Paris Apartment in the 5th Arrondissement.  The session was two hours long, recorded four years ago, and Noam spoke for about an hour and twenty minutes.  He was, as you might expect, quiet, reserved, precise, and intelligent.  It is always a delight to spend time with a clear, powerful mind.  I already was familiar with much that he was saying because I recently read a book he co-authored [which is now packed away, so I cannot pull it off my shelves and tell you the title.]  I remember him almost sixty years ago when he came to Harvard as a Junior Fellow and I was a young Instructor.  Like all of us, he has aged, but his mind has not changed.  I know we all look to him for political commentary these days, but this is the work for which he will be remembered centuries from now.  It was a welcome relief from the chaos and disaster of our public world.


Why do you suppose I began my comment on Chris Hedges with a paragraph or two about The Dozens?  [Hint:  Think Swift  -- not swiftly.]

Monday, May 22, 2017


African-Americans have an extremely sophisticated relationship to language, as I explained at length in my videotaped lectures on Ideological Critique, a sophistication manifested in many ways – in oral traditions, in literary works, even in music.  One of the best known and most delightful examples of this linguistic skill and complexity is a verbal game in which one member of a group starts by directing an imaginative and playful insult at another member, who is his or her target.  At this, everyone sits up and takes notice, aware that a performance has begun.  The target of the insult responds with a variation on the insult that raises its level.  The insults fly back and forth, each more elaborate, outrageous and extravagant than its predecessor, until one of the players gets off an insult so utterly over the top that the opponent cannot immediately come back with a topper.  At that point, everyone collapses in laughter and the winner is acknowledged.  This game is called Playin’ the Dozens, or simply The Dozens. 

There is a political version of this game, played by left-wing intellectuals, that consists in making more and more devastating condemnations of contemporary society in an effort to gain the upper hand over one’s fellow radicals as the most unrelentingly negative member of whatever group has assembled.  If one player says that Donald Trump is a liar, another replies that Trump is a sociopath.  The first player responds that Trump is really different from all Republicans, to which the second responds that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats these days.  This is topped by the argument that there has never been a difference between Democrats and Republicans.  At this point, another player enters the game and annihilates both opponents with the statement that there could not be a difference, because all are merely mouthpieces for capitalism.  Everyone collapses, if not in laughter, than in shared angst.

I was reminded of The Dozens this morning when I read an essay by Chris Hedges posted yesterday on Truthdig entitled “The Death of the Republic.”  Taking as his text the Roman “year of the five emperors” [AD 193], a sure sign of a serious Political Dozens player, Hedges rehearses the manifold, structural, incurable evils of our current politics, and concludes “Our Republic is dead.”  At which point, presumably, all the rest of us in this contest having been silenced by this pronouncement, we can applaud, relax, and go about our daily business, reassured that nothing any of us does can reanimate the rotting corpse.  It is an oddly comforting game, comforting perhaps in the way that post-apocalyptic movies are comforting.

Although I agree with almost every single statement in Hedges’ indictment of modernity, or of America, or of humanity [the precise object of his attack is unclear], I am not at all as a consequence inclined to inaction.  Get rid of Trump?  Hedges responds, “The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.”  Retake the House in 2018?  “The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater.”  Perhaps one of the risks those of us must face who choose action is that most devastating of accusations, that we are naïve.  It is a risk I am willing to take.


I have now returned from my trip to San Francisco, where I saw my son, Patrick, and his family.  I had the great pleasure on Saturday of watching my grandson, Samuel, get a hit and an RBI in his baseball game.  Samuel’s team lost, but they are assured a slot in the semifinals for the league championship and will play again tomorrow.  Since this was San Francisco, all the kids are rabid Giants fans, and I sat in the little stands with the cheering parents wearing a Giants cap provided by my son.  The teams are all named after big league teams [Samuel plays for the Rockies], all except the L. A. Dodgers, the Giants’ mortal enemies.  Samuel explained to me that the kids who had to play for the DODGERS would feel bad.  When I was a boy, seventy years ago, I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and the New York Giants were the enemy, but grandparental loyalty takes precedence over childhood memories, so I soberly agreed that it would indeed be terrible for a kid to be saddled with the stigma of playing for the Dodgers.

I have a Southwest visa card on which I have amassed a ton of points, so my trip out and back was free, but you know Southwest.  Coming home I flew from San Francisco to Milwaukee to Orlando [!!] to Raleigh Durham.  For my foreign readers, just take a look at a map and you will see how insane that is.  On the other hand, all the flights were on time or early, and no one was dragged off kicking and screaming.  You can’t ask for more than that.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


One of the curious quirks of American culture is the popular fascination with zombies.  I get vampires -- that is all about menstruation.  But why zombies?  The latest manifestation of this obsession with the undead is the surfacing of Joe Lieberman as the leading candidate for the position of Director of the FBI.  Hasn't anyone ever driven a stake through his heart?


Once more, I am decamping, this time to San Francisco for the weekend to see my older son, Patrick, his wife Diana, and my two grandchildren Samuel and Athena.  I realize that I am taking the coward's way out by suspending my commentary on the passing scene for a few days, but things are happening so quickly that even taking my morning walk keeps me out of the loop for at least two news cycles.

Before I go, let me comment briefly on one recent revelation, this one concerning General [and former National Security Advisor] Mike Flynn.  It seems that in the last weeks before Trump's inauguration, Flynn advised against, and thus killed, a plan by the previous administration to support Kurdish troops fighting ISIS in Syria AT A TIME WHEN HE WAS IN THE PAY OF THE TURKISH GOVERNMENT, WHICH OPPOSED SUPPORTING THE KURDS, A FACT THAT WAS KNOWN TO THE TRANSITION TEAM PREPARING FOR THE NEW ADMINISTRATION.  

This seems to me to be treason, pure and simple. 

Flynn informed the transition team that he was under investigation for working for the Turkish Government without having registered as a foreign agent, and was listened to and appointed National Security Advisor anyway.  What is more, simon-pure boy scout Mike Pence was in charge of the transition team and thus knew all about this, a fact about which he subsequently has lied several times.

In a decent well-run country, Flynn would be taken out and shot.


Professor Christia Mercer of the Columbia Philosophy Department has been working on a great plan to link skilled professionals to progressive organizations for whom they could then volunteer.  Here is a link to project pro bono.  Check it out and get involved.  There is a movement afoot in this country, and it needs all of us!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


When I blog about Marx or Kant or Game Theory or the theory of democracy, I do so with a certain confidence that I have some idea what I am talking about.  Readers may disagree with me -- Lord knows they always do! -- but I have at least a prima facie claim to knowledge on those topics.  By contrast, when I blog about the current political crisis, I am painfully conscious much of the time of simply echoing what I have read online or heard during my endless surfing of the TV news stations.  Nevertheless, I think it is essential to speak about what we are confronting.  "Attention must be paid," as Willy Loman's wife insists.  Herewith, therefore, my view, offered with full awareness of its lack of authority.

The current administration, despite its extraordinary chaotic incompetence, is steadily doing genuinely terrible things that either seek to threaten the lives of countless millions or actually succeed in doing so.  Here is just one example among scores.  Trump's action will deprive millions of women of essential health services, particularly in Africa, leading to countless preventable deaths and illnesses.  That is sheer evil.  There is no other word for it.

The men and women Trump has appointed to his cabinet will do immeasurable harm to the environment, to women's reproductive health, to education, to worker's rights, and to voting rights.  They will greatly increase the number of men and women incarcerated for long periods for non-violent crimes.   All of this is the deliberate intention of the entire Republican Party, not merely of the Trump Administration.

I do not for a moment believe that Congressional Republicans will act to remove Trump from office, no matter how manifestly egregious his actions, principally because they fear opposition at the polls from Trump supporters.  I predict that Trump will survive all scandals, all revelations, and serve out his term unless he actually comes utterly unglued and must be led off in a straight jacket.

From all of which I draw the conclusion that the only way to limit the harm being done to millions of Americans is to take back the House of Representatives in 2016 and the White House in 2020.  This will by no means end the harm being inflicted by this Administration -- see the example linked to above, which is an example of presidential action alone.  But it will limit the damage.

How to accomplish this overthrow of the Republican majority in the House?  My guess -- not grounded in genuinely deep political knowledge or experience -- is that calls for impeachment will be ineffective, but that a ceaseless hammering on the Republican threats to health care can be a winning strategy.  Repeatedly I have heard anecdotal reports from reporters and politicians that outside the Beltway, health care remains a red hot issue while impeachment only agitates the reliable Democratic voters.

Meanwhile, I freely admit that I am mesmerized by the chaos and self-inflicted wounds of this White House.  But I shall try not to be seduced from  attending to the issue that can win back the House.


This just appeared on TPM, one of my favorite progressive blogs:

It appears that four months into his presidency, Donald Trump hasn’t developed any keener of an interest in his daily national security briefings.

According to a report published Wednesday by Reuters, Trump is more likely to read national security briefing materials if his name is mentioned in as many paragraphs as possible.

Unnamed officials who have briefed the President and others familiar with his learning processes told the publication that Trump still prefers one-page memos and visual aids.

One unnamed source told Reuters that since Trump “keeps reading if he’s mentioned” in briefing materials, officials on the National Security Council have learned to insert the President’s name into “as many paragraphs as we can.”

In such a world, how on earth is one supposed to write thoughtfully about ideological mystification and capitalist exploitation?


It is beyond the talents and imagination even of Jonathan Swift to write a satire of the current administration that unmistakably exceeds the boundaries of the actual.   As evidence, I offer this news story, appearing as I was taking my walk this morning:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he would be willing to provide the U.S. Congress a record of President Trump’s meeting with top Russian envoys, possibly offering new details on the disclosures of reportedly highly classified intelligence information.

The remarkable offer for the Kremlin to share evidence with U.S. oversight committees came with the caveat that the request for the transcript would have to come from the Trump administration.”

I think we can agree that when it comes to humiliating those in an inferior position, Trump has met his match.


This is too good to languish in the comments section of the blog:

Jim said...

Everyone --

Good news from Philadelphia. Today we had a city and state election for court justices and judges, as well as District Attorney. Lawrence Krasner, far and away the most progressive candidate in the field, won the DA race. He is a defense lawyer who represented participants of the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter. Several progressive judges were also elected. Finally, we have a new progressive City Controller, Rebecca Rhynhart. This is how it starts. I feel hopeful -- at least for now.

-- Jim

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


I assume that everyone reading this is aware of the basic facts revealed yesterday concerning Trump’s meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador to the United States.  I cannot possibly make useful up-to-the-minute comments about this because during the time it takes me to type this, more information will be revealed.  But I think it might be useful to remind ourselves what is actually at stake here.

It seems that ISIS has been developing a bomb, hidden in a laptop computer, that is not detectible by the machinery used to scanned airline passengers.  Apparently there are technical limits on the explosive power of these laptop bombs, such that they can be expected to bring down an airplane only if the explode fairly close to the hull, or metal skin, of the plane.  This means that putting them in checked luggage with a timer is probably not going to work.  They must be carried onto the plane by a suicide bomber who gets a window seat.  OK, got that?

The threat of such an attack has been considered sufficiently serious to lead airlines to ban carry-on laptops on flights originating in a number of Middle Eastern countries, and a world-wide ban on laptops on all flights is under consideration, disruptive as that might be.

Some nation [we do not know which one] has an intelligence plant in a city controlled by ISIS, and that person [it helps to remember that this is an actual human being, not a drone or a listening device] has garnered information about the ISIS project, which that nation has shared with the United States.  These sharing arrangements are super-secret for two reasons:  First, because the nation doing the sharing may not be officially an ally of the United States, so that it would be compromised by the revelation that it is sharing intelligence with us [and hence would be less inclined to do so in the future], and Second, because revealing the mere fact that someone in that ISIS-controlled city is an agent could easily endanger that person’s life.

Donald Trump blew all of this by shooting his mouth off to the Russians, who are, with regard to ISIS, not at all our allies.  Trump’s action could lead ISIS to delay its planning for the laptop bomb attacks until it has discovered the mole, or it could just as well lead them to accelerate the timing of the attacks in order to carry them out before they are stopped.  That Trump did in fact do what he is reported to have done is demonstrated by the report that immediately after the meeting, persons in the meeting rushed off to contact the CIA and the NSA to alert them to what the president had done so that they could try to contain the damage.

Why did Trump do this?  I have looked at the still photos of the meeting released by the Russian news photographer and I have read the account of what Trump said [an account which the Washington Post and the NY TIMES edited so as to delete the actual information, by the way.]  It seems to me self-evident that Trump was trying to show off, to establish that he was a big deal in the eyes of the Russians.  He was bragging about the wonderful intelligence he gets every day and then, to prove it, rather like an insecure ten year old trying to gain street cred with the big kids in the playground, blurted out some juicy details.

Let me emphasize:  Trump’s braggadocio has put at risk countless air travelers as well as one or more moles in ISIS, and has made it very much less likely that foreign intelligence services will share information with the U. S. in the future.

In a tweet this morning, Trump declared defiantly that he has every right to do what all of his advisors are desperately trying to claim he did not do.  He is correct about that.

All of this caused me to delay my morning walk.  This is serious stuff, folks.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


In this post, I am going to try to achieve some clarity of mind on a matter of very great urgency, particularly for those of us on the left.  This effort is going to be difficult or me [and perhaps for others who share my political opinions] because it calls on me to think in ways at least orthogonal to, if not entirely the reverse of, my usual mode of political analysis.  For many, I imagine, what I have to say will seem so obvious as to require no comment at all, but others may find me offensively naïve.

All of you, I am sure, are thoroughly familiar with the notion so often repeated that democratic forms of politics depend not merely on formal arrangements of governmental institutions and laws but also on a civic culture, a network of shared and respected norms of discourse and behavior that place constraints on what powerful actors will allow themselves to do.  This is the stuff of endless university courses on Democracy, of pretentiously middle-brow self-congratulatory books about the superiority of our political practices in contrast with those of “Third World Dictatorships,” and of editorials in the upper reaches of the print media.

For a century and a half now, if not more, left-wing critics of Capitalism have been condemning these discourses as rationalizations for the domestic exploitation of workers and the imperial projects of the state carried out by and in the interest of Capital.  We have developed and deployed powerful conceptual critiques of those ideological mystifications of state, church, and academy which serve the purpose of concealing from view the reality underlying the surface appearance of what Marx famously called the realm of “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham.”

However, to a degree that I at least have not allowed myself to acknowledge, we have in our critiques of this false consciousness relied implicitly to a considerable extent on those very norms of civil society and democracy whose deceits and mystifications we have labored to expose.  No one who has read Marx seriously and deeply, as I have over many years, can deny that every word of his writings is instinct with a respect for facts, for reasoned arguments, and for the standards of honesty and responsibility whose distortion and corruption he excoriates.

Marx himself writes surprisingly little about socialism as a functioning economic and political system [even less if we exclude what was written by his colleague Friedrich Engels], but many, including myself, who have been inspired by his writings have insisted that a socialist society, based on collective ownership of the means of production, must be thoroughgoingly democratic in its politics.  I do not know about others, but a Dictatorship of the Proletariat ruled by Democratic Centralism holds no attraction for me.

Which brings me to the real subject of this post, Donald Trump.  In recent days, we have seen Trump assault and undertake to destroy virtually all of the norms of behavior and discourse that Americans have relied on to serve as checks on those whom they place in positions of power.  I shall not rehearse the litany of these assaults – all of you are familiar with them.  What frightens me – I do not think that is too strong a word – is the danger that these norms, once allowed to be defied without punishment, will disappear from our public life.  If Trump can fire with impunity one after another the individuals – U. S. Attorney, Acting Attorney General, Director of the FBI – charged with investigating his possibly criminal acts, will there ever again be a time when the political class closes ranks and puts a stop to such acts?  If Trump and his family are allowed to use the presidency to enrich themselves, will American politics thereafter be a naked kleptocracy?

Some of you, I am sure, will reply that I am being hopelessly naïve, that the American ruling class has been robbing the people for several hundred years, that there is no difference between Trump and George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter or Dwight Eisenhower. You will say that Trump is no worse than any of his predecessors, simply more open in his power grabs and self-enrichment.

I think you would be wrong to say that.  I can recall what American politics was like when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI.  Things have been better since, especially for those of us on the left, and if Trump chooses another Hoover to run the FBI, I do not think it is out of the question, to speak personally, that blogs like this will be closed down.

I honestly believe we are at a truly dangerous moment in modern American history, and the dangers are greatest for those of us on the left.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Kathleen Parker has the first plausible explanation of Trump's decision to fire Comey:  Comey is taller than Trump.

Friday, May 12, 2017


Ron Irving points out that I lost a year.  It was more than two years after the Watergate burglary that Nixon resigned.  As I responded to him, no wonder it seemed like a lifetime!


I have hesitated to blog about the firing of Comey and the extraordinary series of events that have followed because anything I might write is superseded by revelations before my two fat forefingers can hammer out a comment.  But I think I have an obligation to say something, so herewith several observations.

First, for my younger readers who do not remember Watergate or even Iran Contra, the speed with which this is all unfolding is like nothing we have ever seen before.  In the two days that I was away, there have been three or four twists and turns.  If your familiarity with Watergate is All The President’s Men, recall that from burglary to resignation was thirteen months, during which an entire presidential election took place.   I honestly do not believe this will continue for another three or four months before some explosive resolution occurs.

It is patently obvious that Trump is covering up something that he is terrified to have revealed.  What is it?  I do not know.  He is unstable, authoritarian, frightened, blustery, crafty in a small way but not at all clever in a large strategic fashion.  He literally just makes stuff up.  As I watched the Lester Holt interview, he seemed to be inventing imaginary details on the fly to flesh out his lies.  He claimed that Comey assured him he was not under investigation.  When Holt rather skillfully pressed him for details, you could see him inventing the two phone calls as additions to the dinner, which actually took place.  “Did you call him, or did he call you?” Holt asked.  Trump, on the spot, made up the answer, “Once I called him, and once he called me.”  I would bet the ranch that is simply false.  Not a lie.  That would presuppose that Trump knows the difference between truth and falsehood.

Why is it important?  Well, one simple reason is that if Trump gets away with it, we are on the road to dictatorship.  I mean that quite seriously.  We are on the edge right now.  If he gets away with it, this behavior will become the new normal.

A second reason is that Trump and the Republicans want to do a great many simply horrible things.  Trump's cabinet of deplorables have already begun, and they will continue to do grave harm to countless millions of people, but many of the worst things they want to do require legislation, and Trump’s behavior is weakening their ability to legislate.  In the present climate, there will be no tax bill, no faux infrastructure corporate giveaway, no repeal of legislative protections to LGBT Americans [although there will be a great deal of weakening of those protections through simple non-enforcement of existing laws.]

I am apprehensive that Trump will actually behave so self-destructively that he is removed from office too long in advance of the 2018 mid-term elections.  It would be a great relief if the Democrats can take back the House, and as things are going now, that looks more and more possible.  But if he is gone by the Fall, Pence will settle in and the Republicans will proceed to pass one horrific bill after another.

This is an ugly country, for all its pretensions at moral world leadership.  No matter how well this turns out, that fundamental fact will continue to be true.

What will this evening or tomorrow bring?  I honestly have no idea.


Early Wednesday morning, Susie and I set out to visit my sister, Barbara, in Washington, DC.  The air travel was free because I had accumulated a great many Southwest points, which was nice, but there was something a trifle bizarre about flying from North Carolina to Tampa, Florida so that we could deplane, wait a bit, and then get back on the same plane to fly to Washington National.

Barbara and I, by a curious accident, are going through exactly the same experience simultaneously:  selling an apartment, sorting out belongings, hanging out somewhere during showings, all in order to move to a Continuing Care Retirement Community, she in Carlsbad, CA and I here in Chapel Hill.

Barbara is enormously smart, with a pellucidly clear mind and an astonishing breadth of knowledge, especially of molecular and evolutionary biology.  As readers of my autobiography will recall, as a high school senior, she was the Grand National winner of the Westinghouse [later Intel] Science Talent Search.  She ended her long and varied career as the Ombud of the World Bank.

I routinely refer to Barbara as my ‘big sister,” which is how I have thought of her all my life [she is three and a half years older than I am], but she was never very tall, and age has shrunk her a good deal.  [I was 5’9” in my youth, and am now 5’6 ½”.]   Her face has wrinkled, of course, as she approaches 87, and she now walks with a cane.  We met her for dinner at a restaurant a block from her apartment in Washington Circle, and as I saw her walking up to meet us, I realized with a shock that she looks very much like Yoda.

It would not surprise me at all to see her raise a single-seater spacecraft out of a bog with her mind.


Things are happening so fast in the political world that I am scarcely able to keep up.  I would like to say just a word or two about my trip before turning to the meltdown of the presidency, but first I must do chores [shopping for dinner and such.]  I am not certain I can blog fast enough to stay ahead of the news.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


On what may be the most consequential day in American politics since the Saturday Night Massacre, I am about to leave for a long planned trip to DC to see my sister.  Talk about planning!

I shall be back late tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Little by little, my life is disappearing into boxes.  It is very strange.  Meanwhile, let me respond to two questions in the comments section of this blog.

First, Paul asks:  “Curious to know if, as a 19 year old, you were sympathetic to Quine's approach to the problem in 'Two Dogmas'.”

Quine’s famous essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” was published in 1951, during my first year at Harvard.  Two years later, Quine included it in a book of essays, called, with tongue in cheek, From a Logical Point of View [part of the refrain of a Calypso song popular at the time – Quine had a rather wry sense of humor.]  I read the essay and then the whole book, but I confess that I was not taken with his line on the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments.  I was much more powerfully impressed with Kant, which I suppose is hardly surprising.

Jerry Fresia asks, a propos this assertion:  “how could there ever be a de jure authority that didn't necessarily undermine the autonomy of the people subject to it?”, what about “the authority of teachers in classrooms, for one, of parents with their kids, for another.....??”

There are two different questions here, and they require quite different answers, one rather simple, the other quite complex.  Simple first.  Teachers do not have authority in classrooms on any plausible vision of education with which I am familiar [I leave to one side catechism classes.]   They have the power to give grades, of course, and they are, we may hope, authorities on the subjects they teach.   But an authority, in that sense, is someone who knows a great deal about a subject and has sufficiently demonstrated that knowledge to make it reasonable to come to him or her for information or guidance in the process of education.  However, at no time do students have a moral obligation to do as such authorities say, or to believe what they say, in contravention of their independent judgment as students.  We are all familiar with the phenomenon of disagreements among people considered authorities on a subject, and it is of course, our responsibility, as autonomous agents, to weigh their statements and eventually decide where the truth is more likely to lie.  This is difficult, not to say life threatening, when the experts are, let us say, oncologists or brain surgeons, but what are we doing when we seek a second opinion if not exercising our obligation to be autonomous?

The relation of parents to children is much more complex.  Here we see most poignantly the logical conflict [and life conflict] between the classical assumption, found in social contract theory and elsewhere, that the moral sphere is one of fully mature, rational agents, and the manifest fact that we are all at one stage or another of the life cycle of birth, childhood, adulthood, maturity, and old age.  The simple reply to Jerry’s question is that parents never have de jure moral authority over their children.  When the children are too young and immature to be and act as fully rational moral agents, the parents are their guardians, charged morally with bringing them to the point at which they can function as fully developed moral agents.  At that point, the children become autonomous.  In effect, if the children are capable of deferring to the authority of the parents, then they are moral agents and ought not to do so.  If they are not so capable, then they cannot, and therefore do not and ought not.

When does the child become an autonomous agent, hence an adult and no longer bound to obey his or her parents?  Ah well, that is the subject of half of the great literature ever written and all of the anguish that parents experience.  About that, I have no special wisdom to offer.  Just the consolation to tormented parents that whatever they do, it is sure to be wrong,


I think readers of this blog will agree that I do not have a partisan bone in  my body.  I am a reach-across-the-aisle let's-get-along kind of guy who believes that the American experiment in popular democracy works best when Senators from across this great nation can find common ground.  For that reason, I have always had a special place of affection in my heart for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has the extraordinary ability to bring ninety-eight of his colleagues together [excluding only Senator Mike Lee] in agreement that he is a dick.  As one of his fellow senators explained, when asked why everyone takes an instant dislike to Cruz, "Because it saves time."

I thought of this yesterday while watching the testimony of Sally Yates and James Clapper before a Senate subcommittee.  Cruz, a fabled champion debater in college, came loaded for bear, slyly and with manifest self-satisfaction setting a little trap for Yates in his questioning of her refusal, as Acting Attorney General, to defend Trump's original Muslim ban in court.

Yates crushed him.  You can see the exchange here, where it drew 118,000 views overnight.

The commentary after the hearing has been an uplifting manifestation of bi-partisan schadenfreude.  The natural centrist in me glowed with pleasure.

Sunday, May 7, 2017


In response to my bemused brief post about the discussion of anti-natalism that suddenly has broken out on this blog, S. Wallerstein, after some very kind words, says this: “I suspect that back when you were working as an academic philosopher, you too discussed whatever issues your academic philosopher colleagues were talking about with them.”

That got me thinking about the old days, and I realized that in fact the truth is somewhat different.  To be sure, I did engage in such discussions as a student.  Back in the middle ‘50s [the 1950’s not the 1850’s], one very hot topic, endlessly discussed in the journals, was the analytic/synthetic distinction [you had to have been there.]  Two of my professors, Morton White and Willard Van Orman Quine, published articles on the subject.  I can still recall, as a nineteen year old graduate student, staying up all night brooding about it and rushing over on a Sunday morning looking for Stanley Cavell.  I found him in the Adams House dining room having a leisurely breakfast with the poet John Hollander.  “Stanley, Stanley,” I cried, scarcely pausing to say hello, “I think I have solved the analytic synthetic problem!”  He looked down his nose at me and said languidly, “Please, not before breakfast.”  I slunk away, rebuked but not discouraged.

Not long after that I spent a wanderjahr in Europe on a traveling fellowship, neither reading nor talking about Philosophy [although I did attempt some bad faux Kierkegaardesque ruminations.]  When I got home, I wrote my doctoral dissertation, went in the army, and started my career.  Pretty soon I stopped reading the journals, and for the next fifty or sixty years pursued the thoughts in my head rather than those in the journals.  I did not go to professional meetings, save when I was asked to speak at them, and I published books that responded to Kant or Marx or Mill or the world rather than to what my colleagues were talking about.  I did not even pay very close attention to what people were writing about me, with the consequence that I was quite startled recently to learn that my little book, In Defense of Anarchism, had made a considerable impact on legal scholars and political theorists [the early reviews were all quite negative.]

I do not recommend this course to others; it is simply a description of what I have done with my life.  So if anti-natalism is all the rage, have at it.  It is probably better than trolley cars.


Le Pen has been decisively defeated.  How I wish I was there to join the crowds celebrating in the Place de l"Hotel de Ville.  Thank God I have an apartment waiting for me there.


I have to confess that blogging is weird.  It has its pleasures, but from time to time the conversation here takes a genuinely strange turn.  Anti-natalism?  Seriously?  With all the challenges that face us, with the disaster that is American politics, with the signs, at long last, of a grassroots progressive surge, we are talking aboiut anti-natalism?

Look, far be it from me to stifle discussion.  When you are done, I will go on talking about the world.


As I have remarked, I am about to move from the 4th NC CD, which reelected Democrat David Price 70/30, to the 6th CD, which reelected Mark Walker 60/40.  It is nice to know my vote will count, but clearly we have our work cut out for us.  Tomorrow I shall find our whether Mr. Walker is planning to hold a town hall anywhere near here.  I think it is time to speak truth to power.

Saturday, May 6, 2017


As might have been expected, the passage in the House of a bill designed to snatch health care away from  more than a score of millions of Americans has provoked an uproar of opposition.  But as this story indicates, the resistance does not stop there.  Millions of dollars have been donated even before candidates have been selected to use it against Representatives who voted for the bill.  The money is in effect in escrow, awaiting contenders to announce!  This is a level of intensity of grassroots progressive political activity unlike anything I have ever seen in this country.  It will undoubtedly encourage plausible candidates to decide to run.  And God bless Jimmy Kimmel, who has turned a personal medical nightmare into an irresistible battle cry.

It doesn't take a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing, as someone might once have said.


I stumbled on a truly splendid piece of research and  reporting that gives precise estimates of the numbers of people in each and every Congressional District who will lose their health coverage if the bill just passed by the House becomes law.  To access the Excel spreadsheet with the data, go to this site and then click on the link at the end of the main story [three paragraphs down.]  For example, in the 6th NC CD, to which I shall be moving in six weeks, a district represented by Republican Mark Walker, 78,600 people will lose their coverage.  Check out your own CD.  The 2018 off year election is going to be about this and nothing but this.  The Republicans own this now, regardless of what the Senate does, and we must make them eat it.

Friday, May 5, 2017


All of us, I imagine, have at one time or another found ourselves yelling at the television.  I turned on MSNBC this afternoon just in time to hear a bright, cheerful young thing explaining to Ali Velshi why it makes no sense to require men to buy life insurance that insures them for, among other things, maternity expenses.  As she said with an enormous smile, “I am sorry to tell you this, Ali, but you are never going to get pregnant,” she was so manifestly pleased with her wit that she could scarcely contain herself.  Let us set to one side the notion, apparently anathema to a good many conservatives, that we should care about the well-being of others [even if they are no longer fetuses].  I feel the need to explain just exactly why it is in the self-interest of unmarried men to pay something to ensure the healthy delivery of babies.  If you know all of this a thousand times over, my apologies, but writing a blog post is a tad more satisfying than throwing fruit at a TV screen.

The life cycle is the central fact of human existence.  Assuming that we are fortunate, we are born, we grow to maturity, we live, we grow old, and we die.  These days in the United States that process takes, on average, a bit less than eight decades.

Now, to live, we need food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and – I am hesitant to acknowledge – cell phones.  It is also nice for us to have movies to watch, music to listen to, restaurants to go to, and airplanes to ride in.  Not absolutely essential, to be sure, but nice.  A great many people imagine that they can ensure their supply of food, clothing, shelter, and the latest upgrade in cell phones by prudently engaging in systematic saving, setting aside a bit of their income each year in a pension plan of some sort so that when their earning days are over, they can live on what they have saved.  But that is, I should like to point out, a very superficial and shortsighted view.

This is 2017.  Let us suppose that I am a thirty year old unmarried man gainfully employed here in Chapel Hill, NC.  My life plan has me retiring at 70 [I have one of those white collar jobs that does not wear the body down.]  That means that in 2057 I will stop earning and start spending my pension. 

Today, when I go to the grocery store for dinner, I will buy fresh fruits and vegetables [I am, let us suppose, a health nut.]  These fruits and vegetables are grown by farmers in California, harvested by low paid undocumented workers, trucked East by unionized truckers, and sold to me by the staff of the local Whole Foods outlet.  If I get sick, I will go to the Ambulatory Care Center [or ACC] at UNC Health Services and be looked after by a doctor and several attending nurses and medical students [it is a division of a teaching hospital.]

In 2057, who will grow, harvest, and truck East my fruits and vegetables?  Who will treat me when I am sick, as I imagine I will be from time to time at age seventy?  I will have the money to pay for them because I have for forty years prudently saved a little each year.  But although I am putting away money, I am not, as though I were a squirrel, storing bread and yoghurt and shoes!

The people who provide all of those things for me now will not still be providing them for me in forty years.  In forty years, those people will all pretty much be retired except for the medical students, who will be senior physicians.  No, I will be fed and clothed and housed and amused and treated by a raft of people who are now babies or children, if indeed they have even been born yet.

Think about that for a moment.  No matter how self-reliant I am, no matter how healthy a life I live, my survival in old age will depend completely on the labor of people who are being born now.  Is it in my self-interest that those people be born healthy, grow to maturity healthily, get educated, and live productive lives?  You are damned right it is.

Imagine I am rushed to the Emergency Room in 2057 with a heart attack, only to be told that the physician who was to attend me isn’t there because forty years ago her mother had inadequate pre-natal care and so she did not make it through the first year of life.  Of course, if maternity care had been part of a health insurance plan that unmarried men like me contributed to, thus making it affordable, that little girl would now be a physician capable of saving my life.


There.  That feels better.


The little back and forth about the title of Willem deVries’ book Hegel’s Theory of Mental Activity got me thinking about the titles of my books, and I realized that no fewer than seven of my books have titles that are borrowed from other books, including one whose title is borrow from a book by me!

The first was the little book Barrington Moore, Jr., Herbert Marcuse, and I did in 1965, A Critique of Pure Tolerance [a joke title proposed by Herbert.]   This was followed by The Poverty of Liberalism in 1968.  This is actually a grandson title.  The original was Proudhon’s La Philosophie de la Misère, to which Marx responded with La Misère de la Philosophie [i.e. The Poverty of Philosophy] on which I then piggybacked.  The next year, I published The Ideal of the University, a steal from John Cardinal Newman/s classic work The Idea of the University [or homage as we say in the writing game].  The year after that I brought out In Defense of Anarchism, the title taken from a wonderful Mark Twain essay, “In Defense of Harriet Shelley.”  Then, in 1973, I edited a forgettable collection of essays by various authors called 1984 Revisited.  In ’85, having no better idea, I called my book on Marx’s economic theories Understanding Marx, an echo of my ’77 book Understanding Rawls.  Finally, in 2005, I published Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, a deliberate steal from and reference to the famous James Weldon Johnson novel Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

As I was writing all this, I was blithely unaware of my habit of stealing titles.  I am sure it has some deep meaning, but I cannot for the life of me imagine what that is.


I have been shunning cable news since the House vote yesterday on the Republican health bill.  I simply could not stomach endless replays of the gloating and celebrating by Trump and the Republicans.  There is not the slightest chance of anything remotely like it passing the Senate, and there is good reason to hope that the vote will cost the Republicans some House seats in 2018, but the mere passage of the bill will apparently so roil the insurance markets that large numbers of people will lose coverage or experience unaffordable increase in their insurance costs.  In short, people will die as a consequence of the vote.

I fear some on the left have allowed themselves to be buoyed by the inability of the Republicans to pass major pieces of legislation.  Even in that absence, Trump has managed to do an extraordinary amount of harm.  People have been bemused and misled by the scattering of unexpectedly liberal things that come from his mouth or from his Twitter fingers.  In fact, every single domestic appointment of this administration, without exception, has been appallingly, unimaginably bad.  Department after department has been put in the control of someone who is publicly, on record, opposed to its core purpose.  The only saving grace is the fact that Trump has filled virtually no positions below the top, thus depriving the departments of the ability to carry out the ugly policies of the man or woman in charge.

We must continue to organize from below, putting forward progressive candidates and supporting everyone who is an improvement over the existing office holder.  The truth is that America is, for many different reasons, a morally and politically ugly country, and I honestly do not know how much we can do to change that, but this is where I live, so I have to try.

Now, that is as much air time as I am willing to give to the little Eeyore struggling to push his way past my inner Tigger.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Forty-seven boxes did it, so I turned my attention to stuff crammed into my office closet.  In a box otherwise filled with a lifetime of offprints,  I surfaced a book entitled Knoiwledge and Politics, edited in 1989 by Marcelo Dascal and Ora Gruengard of Tel Aviv University.  In it I found an essay I had rotally forgotten writing, called "Absolute Fruit and Abstract Labor:  Remarks on Marx's Use of the Concept of Inversion."  It was inspired by the early hilarious book by Marx and Engels called The Holy Family.  A quick glane suggests that it is a version of part of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  


I spent all yesterday packing books.  At this moment, I am up to 43 boxes, and I think another 20 or 25 should do it.  When I finished packing the last of the books by and on Marx [4 boxes] I had a tiny bit of space left in the last one, so I used it to pack my copy of the King James Bible.  It seemed appropriate somehow, but I shall be sorry to be without the Good Book for two months.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


I have begun the long tedious task of packing to move.  The day before the movers come, the extended family will turn out to help the old folks, but with all this time [we move on June 28th] I decided to start on my books.  I bought a stack of very nice easy to assemble boxes from  Staples and set to work.  I am labeling the boxes, which will be broken down into five sets [maybe 60-70 boxes in all.]  There is the main alphabetical run, all the Marx books [including the complete English translation of the works of Marx and Engels -- the German is in Paris], all the economics books, all the Afro-American Studies book, and everything by me, including books, journals or collections in which I appear [offprints are already in a box in my closet], my doctoral dissertation, extra copies of translations, etc.

This morning, I had gotten as far as I-12, the twelfth box of the first group, which brought me to the letter H, and as I climbed on a little step stool to reach the top shelf, I came on the rather small Hegel collection.  There I saw a book I had clearly never opened, by  Willem A. deVries, entitled Hegel's Theory of Mental Activity, published by Cornell in 1988.  I checked and there is no reference to me in the Bibliography or Index.

Now, I mean, how likely  is it that deVreis hit on this title completely independently of my 1963 book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity?


Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Like many of you, I should think, I spend a certain amount of time listening to National Public Radio, in my case when I am in my car running errands.  Today, I took Susie to the dentist and sat outside in my car waiting for her.  I tuned in a show called “1A,” short for “First Amendment.”  It is the successor to the Diane Rehm Show which ran here in North Carolina for many years from 10 am to noon five days a week.   The show is hosted by someone named Joshua Johnson who sounds to me like a young man [although everyone sounds young to me.]  The topic was what to make of Trump’s recent rash of adoring statements and friendly overtures to a pretty fair sampling of the world’s dictators – Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Kim Jong-un.  In the course of the conversation, I heard something I had never heard before on NPR.  What struck me most forcefully was the spontaneous eruption it triggered from Johnson.

I should explain to my overseas readers that talk shows on NPR are almost always polite, informed, restrained, apolitical or if not that then politically balanced, the ideal fare for urban upper middle class college educated types who can be counted on to vote, to support good causes, to recycle, and to express sympathy for the poor, for the homeless, for the oppressed and of course for Native Americans.  Listening to NPR makes me feel clean, the way I have always imagined Catholics feel after finally going to confession.  The one thing missing from the typical NPR talk show is truth, naked, raw, unqualified, unapologized for truth. 

In the discussion today, the guests were being asked to speculate on the reasons for certain of Trump’s recent statements and actions:  the congratulatory call to Erdogan, the invitation to Duterte, the rather unanticipated statement that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim Jong-un.  Why would Trump speak in this way about rulers who murdered their own countrymen, even their own relatives, rigged elections, oppressed opponents, threw reporters in jail?
One after another, guests speculated that Trump was trying to upend long-standing American foreign policy, or was speaking thoughtlessly, or had some hidden negotiating strategy in mind.  To each of these guests, Johnson responded courteously, respectfully, clearly signaling that these were just the sorts of sober, serious, thoughtful comments he wished to encourage.

Then it happened.  One of the guests, I do not know whom it was, said quietly, “I think it is envy.”  Johnson erupted almost before the words had been uttered.  In a loud, flustered voice, he burst out, “But you cannot mean that you think he would like to do those things!  But, but, but, surely you do not mean that.”  Johnson went on in this way, speaking over his guest, who was trying, so far as I could hear, to say “Yes, I think that is just what he wants to do.”

It was so manifestly, obviously, undeniably true, and at the same time so nakedly partisan, that it made Johnson’s head explode. 

It was, in its simplicity, the truest thing I had ever heard on NPR.  I do not imagine that guest will be invited back.

Monday, May 1, 2017


Moving from Amherst, MA [well, actually, Pelham] to Chapel Hill, NC was a bit like moving from Brigadoon to Erewhon.  Amherst was comfortably stuck in the sixties, all sandals and candles.  In Chapel Hill, you are more likely to hear a New York accent than a southern drawl.  Now we are about to move to a retirement community, and though it has the same zipcode and is only 5.2 miles away [according to GoogleMaps], we leave the sanctuary of David Price’s securely Democratic Congressional District and enter the 6th CD, which Republican Mark Warner won last November by a 60/40 margin.  I can see I will have my work cut out for me.  Maybe some of the other senior citizens at Carolina Meadows will be interested in forming a Grey Panthers chapter.  Lord, I do hope they are not all country club Republicans!

Sunday, April 30, 2017


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


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?


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.


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.


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.”