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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.


s. wallerstein said...

I think that you are excessively pessimistic when you claim that a blog like yours might be closed down by a new J.Edgar Hoover.

I am old enough to recall J.Edgar Hoover 1 and the McCarthy years. During them alternative media existed. Pacifica Radio dates from 1946, the National Guardian from 1948 and I.F. Stone's Weekly from 1953.

The Cold War consensus did not control the masses by closing down alternative media and by the gestapo kicking down doors at 3AM. As Marcuse points out in One Dimensional Man, the consensus was enforced by an impressive propaganda apparatus (TV, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood) and by integrating the working class (white working class) into mass consumption. I would add that in my experience social pressure was very important too: "everyone" was anti-communist.

You also wonder whether the U.S. will become a naked kleptocracy and that I think is more possible. Probably more a plutocracy than a kleptocracy in fact. However, it will be a plutocracy/kleptocracy with alternative media, with tolerance for sexual diversity, with the incorporation of women who play the game into the plutocratic/kleptocratic elite and quite possibly with a Democratic president in the White House.

Tom Cathcart said...

s wallerstein: IF Stone, et al to the contrary notwithstanding, Hoover also infiltrated SDS, SCLC, etc., bugged King's hotel rooms, tried to tie the civil rights movement to the Communist Party, etc. It really can get more authoritarian fast. The best news for free speech is that it would be tough at this point to close down the Internet. Otherwise, I can imagine a blog like Bob's being labeled subversive and some sort of legal maneuvers used to silence it in the name of some supposed threat to public order.

s. wallerstein said...

Tom Cathcart,

Snowdon informed us that the security apparatus under Obama was bugging us. I assume that every alternative movement in every democratic country will be infiltrated and that by now in every democratic society they can and will read all our emails and blogs.

The difference between democracy and dictatorship (and I've lived under both) is that democracies generally don't kick down your door at 3 AM and disappear you or send you off to the gulag. Yes, they assassinated Fred Hampton and George Jackson in the early 70's, and yes, the Rosenbergs were unfairly tried and Ethel was completely innocent, but in general, they don't shut down blogs in America. They have other ways to control dissent, the most effective one, as Marcuse points out, is an incredibly well-done propaganda apparatus based on the television, Hollywood, advertising and now Facebook (undoubtedly, Facebook is clearly monitored and they plant operatives in Facebook who under innocent covers spread rumors, lies and propaganda which suit their aims.

Jerry Fresia said...

Unlike the situation with Nixon, "stand-up" Republicans do not seem to be stepping forward.Finance casino capitalism is in the driver's seat, not Keynesianism. The Supreme Court, unlike the early 70s, leans toward the far right. Unlike the early 70s, unfair and unbalanced media, Fox News (and now there is the rise of the Sinclair Broadcasting Company which is to the right of Fox) , dominates the public interpretation of events. The NYTs just hired a climate denier and MSNBC is adding right wingers to it's programing. Private prison expansion is fueled by the profit motive. The surveillance state strengthens as the Fourth Amendment is eviscerated. And all federal branches and the majority of state houses are controlled by the right. Weapons producers have a material state in perpetual war. As the heat is turned up on Trump, a "wag the dog" scenario, with horrific consequences, becomes more probable. The tipping point will be the ruthless repression of protestors.

In short, there seems to be a material interest on the part of many powerful players in displacing the civic virtue that we could count on to some degree in the past in favor of some kind of extended state of emergency.

I think the Professor is clearly onto something, whether or not his blog and others like it are made illegal. Meanwhile, the "left" is practically
at the same level of respectability as sexual predators in the public mind. Not good. For the first time in 13 years since I moved to Italy, I feel safer here.

howie berman said...

To make a point that happens from my experience with Trump supporters: they are civil in their every day dealings with me and in fact accuse me at times of being intolerant by being out to get Trump (speaking of reaction formations) but they are civil in everyday life is my point, which means first, there is a new political realm which is set off from everyday life where they can be assholes and uncivil and flirt with fascism- second, they don't see any connection with their behavior and real life either regarding civility and policy and thirdly the real test will come when their fascism and incivility spills into real life, Professor Wolff's new norms.

I leave it for others to spot the broader implications

howie b said...

Correct me if I got the wrong idea, of how Marx in envisioning a dictatorship of the proletariat had in mind how the political realm is a realm of machtpolitik and force- not much unlike the way of world and the way of Trump, that human ashtray

Chris said...

You are wrong Howie. Marx and Engels said the dictatorship of the proletariat was essentially the democracy of the paris commune (they didn't use the word dictatorship in the 19th century like we do). It's in the very opening of Marx and Engels' writings on the civil war in france.

howie b said...

Thanks, How very interesting is the fact you shared with me

I. M. Flaud said...

My money is on dementia before a total devolution to autocracy. Not a moment too soon. Do you think you might have some warning, as widely subscribed as this intellectual oasis of a blog is, before the web is heavily censored and the blog is erased from history?

I. M. Flaud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
I. M. Flaud said...

Apropos of Marx, while the blog is permitted to continue, here's an informative review of the response of academic and professional economists to the publication Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. One disagreement with Piketty seems to be this. Rather than income shifting to capital and away from labor, the diagnosis is that a few firms have been able to collect rents that provide them with higher returns on the capital they own. This is accomplished through special political and other arrangements unavailable to those unfortunates subject to market discipline. In my own traction-free idiosyncratic way, in the vaunted "value-free" language of contemporary game theory, I would say that a few firms are systematically winning asymmetric zero-sum games against the rest of us.

I. M. Flaud said...

The link didn't make it in my html:

Daniel Langlois said...

'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.'

I didn't get past this.

Daniel Langlois said...

I wonder when is 'middle-brow' relevant? Don Quixote is neither highbrow nor middlebrow, I guess, as it is a satire on literary pretensions, etc. Yet it might for a long time have also been regarded as light literature and not worthy of serious study. I am considering 'middlebrow', as a supposed measure of worth. Like maybe a novel or story’s worth --we can discuss whether it is highbrow or lowbrow. I would simply reply that the thing to discuss is whether it transcends brows. Like, what books should I keep? Do we all know what dead writing is? Here, I think of an example: managerial speak. Those densely-worded, multi-paged documents about course intended learning outcomes, quality assurance mechanisms and international benchmarking activities. My worry is that 'pretentiously middle-brow' might have been intended as a category that includes Anna Karenina. If we are thinking that we have found something pretentious, something presumptuous, if that is what we are thinking..then I shall try to imagine Tolstoy telling Chekhov at his country estate that he was writing “literary fiction” or “highbrow literature”. Fact is that I do not accept the word 'middle-brow' as progress towards something simple and straightforward.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff, you will be glad to know your blog is now longer censored via tor, the darknet...
I am posting this comment using Tor.