Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Mirabile dictu, Susie and I have found a buyer for our apartment, a young doctor and his wife who are coming to Chapel Hill so that he may take up a residency at UNC Hospitals. Papers have been signed, but there is still the inspection, so once more we shall prepare the apartment to be seen, this time by an eagle-eyed Inspector probing for hidden plumbing flaws or hinky wiring. If he or she is truly on alert, it will be revealed that the Jacuzzi in the master bathroom does not work, but fortunately it was listed “as is” on the realtor’s promo, so they cannot make a case about that.
Now begins the seemingly endless business of telling everyone who matters [i.e., who sends me money, like the Massachusetts Pension System] what our new address is, informing Spectrum [formerly Time Warner Cable – when did that happen?] that we still want Starz at our new location, and telling the NY TIMES the new delivery location.
As I predicted, we took a bath with the selling price. I figured out that if you ignore inflation and complicated matters like that, my gains and losses on the sale of five principal dwellings over the past half century just about sum to zero dollars. I would strongly suggest that no one ask me for financial advice. On the other hand, I have never aimed to die rich, just solvent so that my children are not left with bills to pay.
The next stage of my life, if things work out as I hope, will feature an increasing involvement with Columbia University through my new membership in the Society of Senior Scholars there. It is now forty-six years since I left Columbia for an extraordinary thirty-seven years at the University of Massachusetts. The young Marxists At UMass from whom I learned so much are now old, retired, and in some cases no longer Marxists. The exciting experimental undergraduate program I started – Social Thought and Political Economy – is flourishing in middle age, and the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies that I helped to create and ran for twelve years has just celebrated its first twenty years, turning out bright, young, productive scholars.
My involvement with Columbia will necessarily be intermittent, since I will continue to live in North Carolina, but there are direct flights, and as I learned long ago, in the Academy even those professors who live across the street from the university, as I did back then, are liable not to spend that much time on campus.
It should be fun.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
This morning, I read this very interesting and informative piece about Jared Kushner, Trump's increasingly powerful son-in-law. Note in particular the network of connections linking Kushner with such diverse players as Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Glen Beck. Note also the patently deliberate campaign to portray him as the moderating, even liberal, force moving Trump toward respectability. You and I do this politics thing as a sideline, as a hobby, perhaps even as a passion, but we are up against smart people who do it twenty-four hours a day as their profession. The only thing we've got going for us is that there are more of us than there are of them.
Monday, April 24, 2017
The pressure of trying to sell my apartment has absorbed virtually all of my attention and energy. Each time there is a showing, my wife and I rush about hiding all evidences that actual human beings live here, remove the latest water spots from the immaculate kitchen floor, and then leave to hang out somewhere for two hours, anxiously awaiting news from our agent. While this has been going on, a flood of comments have erupted on this blog.
This morning, it is raining, so no walk. Since I got up at five a.m. nonetheless, I found myself with some down time [even real estate agents do not call at 5:45 a.m.], so I decided to try to catch up with the comment thread. And then I found this sad comment, posted by Ed Barreras at 6:23 yesterday evening:
“I wake up to find that the wonderful, kind-hearted Hubert Dreyfus is dead and that revolting orange goblin is still president of the United States. Life sucks.”
Marx, Althusser, robots and such are interesting, but this takes precedence. Bert Dreyfus was my close friend sixty years ago when I was a graduate student at Harvard, and I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing. I will leave it to others to write about his philosophical contributions and his long, distinguished career at Berkeley. I would like to remember him by telling some Bert Dreyfus stories in an effort to capture his unusual, not to say unique, character. In the old Reader’s Digest, there was a little feature at the bottom of the page titled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.” Bert would be a favorite in that category for many of us who knew him then.
Bert was short [5’3”, 5’4”?], quite thin, with carrot colored hair. His brother Stuart looked very much like him, except that Stuart’s hair was sort of purple. Both, needless to say, were ferociously bright. Bert had a quirky smile and an ebullient manner. For reasons that the rest of us could not quite fathom, he was spectacularly successful with women. One day, I ran into him as he was on his way to a date with a new young lady. I saw him on Mass Ave the next morning, and asked him how the date had gone. “It was fine,” he said, “but afterwards she wanted to talk about philosophy and I was up all night.”
Bert was the reason why I learned to use chopsticks efficiently. Every so often a group of us [Bert, Charles Parsons, Steven Barker, Ingrid Stadler, Sam Todes, myself] would get enough money together to go out for Chinese, at what was then the newly opened Joyce Chen restaurant. By agreement, we would order a bunch of dishes and split the bill equally. Although Bert was small and thin, he ate like a Tasmanian Devil, and if you did not wield the chopsticks well enough, he would eat part of your share of the food.
Bert was also indirectly responsible for my first marriage. In 1957, I got my doctorate and went into the Army to do my six months of active duty as the first portion of a six year National Guard commitment [those were the days of the draft, and it was either that or two years in the Regular Army.] After Basic Training at Fort Dix, I was transferred to Fort Devens in Ayer, MA, about an hour’s drive west of Cambridge, for training as a Communications Specialist [nothing fancy – climbing poles to string wire and that sort of thing.] Every so often I would get a pass to go off base. Bert had gone to Paris to study with Merleau-Ponty, so I would hitch a ride into Cambridge and hang out with his girlfriend, Adair Moffat, who was a Radcliffe undergraduate living in Whitman Hall. One day, I saw a beautiful young woman sitting at the bell desk waiting for a date. I asked her out and married her five years later.
Bert and Sam Todes were members of the Kant Study Group that Charles Parsons and I organized in 1956-57 in our Mass Ave apartment. It met every Wednesday evening from 8-12 p.m. all year long, during which we plowed through the First and Third Critiques, debating the meaning of every page. Most of us had taken C. I. Lewis’ great course on the First Critique, and we shared a belief that Kant was the supreme philosopher. That Kant Group, as we called it, was the greatest educational experience of my life.
When Bert returned from Paris, he was full of news about the revolutionary things Merleau-Ponty was saying there. Sam, who seemed to have been born with a complete metaphysical system in his head, declared it old hat, having, it seems, already arrived at the same conclusions himself.
Bert eventually got a job teaching in the Philosophy Section of the Humanities Department at MIT, as did Sam. The chair in those days was a curious philosopher named Huston Smith. In ’63-’64, my wife and I returned to Cambridge from Chicago, where I was an Assistant Professor, so that I could spend a year subbing for Ingrid Stadler at Wellesley while she went on leave. Both my wife and I desperately wanted to stay in Cambridge and Bert did everything he could to promote a job for me at MIT, but it was no use. Instead, I ended up getting a tenure offer from Columbia.
Bert went off to Berkeley in ’68 [I think], and we lost touch, but as this post perhaps makes clear, he remained vividly alive in my thoughts for the next half-century, and is so today, for all that he has passed away. I shall not miss him. Instead I shall remember him for as long as I am still alive.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
This primer from DailyKos on the various organizations [DNC, DCCC, DSCC, DLC] that raise money for and organize for the election of Democrats is quite helpful. The bottom line is that it is always better to give directly to individual candidates. It is worth a few moments' reading time.
I am not a happy warrior. I am not one of those admirable people who enjoys the fight. I do not wade into a struggle for economic justice or gender equality or environmental protection with a laugh on my lips, reinvigorated by each defeat to ever greater efforts. I much prefer to sit quietly and contemplate my circles, as Archimedes did when Syracuse was attacked [or so Kierkegaard says.] But the sheer awfulness of contemporary America, both before Trump and after, compels me to pay attention. In these brief remarks, I shall try to come to terms in some way with what Karl Marx got right about capitalist society and what he got wrong. I do this because I need to understand why the behavior of my fellow Americans so dramatically diverges from what I would have expected.
Standing off a bit from the detail of his theories [including the Labor Theory of Value, about which I have, after all, written an entire book and several highly technical journal articles], what I can see is that Marx told us about three related but different things: First, the fundamental exploitative structure of capitalism; Second, the probable direction in which capitalism would develop as its institutions matured; and Third, how men and women would respond to that underlying exploitation and that development.
Looking at things a century and a half after Marx published Capital [less one year], I believe that what I see is this: Marx was dead right on the first point, more right than wrong on the second point, and utterly wrong on the third point.
First things first: Capitalism is indeed built on exploitation, it thrives on exploitation, it requires exploitation to survive, the exploitation is structural, and has nothing in particular to do with the character or feelings of those who control the capital, and capitalism will therefore continue to exploit workers for as long as it exists, regardless of the ameliorations and accommodations it may be forced on occasion to concede. To demonstrate this was an enormous accomplishment for Marx, and all by itself establishes his claim as the greatest social scientist who has ever lived.
With regard to the second matter, Marx was shrewdly prescient, although he was not alone in anticipating the way things would play out. He was quite right about the tendency of capitals to gobble up other capitals and become larger and larger. I am not sure he anticipated how resilient and persistent would be the realm of small firms, start-ups, petty capitalist economic activity, but his larger claims are compatible with that phenomenon. He, like many others, saw the danger to capitalism in the cycle of booms and busts, and in some loose sense he may even be said to have predicted the great crash of ’29, although he expected it sooner than it came. The internationalization of capitalism is entirely in keeping with his central insights, of course. What he got wrong, as I have argued elsewhere, was the persistence of a pyramidal structure of jobs and wages in the ranks of the working class, broadly defined. This was an important failure on his part, though he can hardly be blamed for it, I think. A century and a half later, the stark opposition of capital and labor has been not replaced but it has been overlain with the conflicts of interest between well-paid and poorly-paid members of the working class. Technically speaking, they are all exploited – the minimum wage workers and the lavishly paid members of the upper middle classes – but the political, social, ideological, and human consequences of that exploitation are utterly different for the two groups.
The third thing, the likely response of men and women to the devolution of capitalism, Marx got totally wrong, so far as I can see. Now do not misunderstand me: I think Marx was the world’s greatest theorist of mystification, of false consciousness, of ideology [and I have written a book and many articles about this as well.] But Marx was convinced that over time, as the centralization of capitalism continued, and even though members of the ruling and exploiting class would more firmly clasp to their collective bosom the self-justifying rationalizations offered for their unrelenting exploitation by priests, political theorists, and economists, workers would be led to unite, throw off their acceptance of those rationalizations, and develop ever sharper and more energized consciousness of their condition, inspiring them to cast about for ways to overthrow the exploiters and take collective ownership of their own collective product: Capital.
Well, in the early years of the last century, when my grandfather helped lead the New York Socialist Party to electoral victories, himself winning election to the New York Board of Aldermen in 1917, it was still possible to believe that he and his comrades were the avant garde of a worldwide revolution. But a century later, only those who have converted a triumph of social science into a quasi-religion can still cling to that belief. Thomas Frank memorably asked, What’s The Matter With Kansas? I think we need to ask, what in the name of God is the matter with the whole damned country?
Now, I know all about the biases of the media, about epistemic bubbles, about the well-funded efforts to deny the plain facts of climate change, of economic misery, of plain straight-up kleptocracy, but why do scores of millions, more than scores of millions, buy into that nonsense? I mean, we know it is nonsense, and we do not have access to any sources of information that are denied to our fellow citizens. The information is all there, free, available simply by picking up a TV remote and changing the station, or Googling with a mouse. Fox News draws vastly more people than Lawrence O’Donnell, but there is no legislative limit on the number of people allowed to tune him in. Never mind Trump. Why on earth do people all over America elect and re-elect politicians whose whole aim in life is to screw them?
I know all about gerrymandering and voter suppression, but that is no explanation. Bernie Sanders, God bless him, was the only candidate in the last Presidential cycle talking about the fact that the rich are screwing the poor. Why didn’t he pull 80% of the total vote of both parties?
I don’t get it.
Friday, April 21, 2017
Buried in the flood of comments posted recently on this blog have been several allusions to the term “overdetermined” as used by Louis Althusser and some of those influenced by him. I have been under a good deal of stress lately, and since I find it relaxing to sort out complicated concepts, I thought I would spend a few restful moments explaining the notion of overdetermination.
The term has its origin in Linear Algebra, where a system of linear equations is said to be underdetermined if it has fewer equations than unknowns. “Underdetermined” here means that the equations cannot be solved for the values of the unknowns because the equations do not provide sufficient information. A system of two linearly independent equations in three unknowns can only be reduced to the point at which the values of the remaining two variables lie somewhere along a straight line. A system of two equations in four unknowns reduces to a plane of equally correct solution points, and so forth.
By contrast, if the system has more equations than unknowns, it is said to be overdetermined. There is, so to speak, too much information, and if the equations are all linearly independent of one another, there will be no consistent set of values of the variables that satisfy the equations [if there is a set of values that satisfy the equations, then the equations are not independent, which means their number can be reduced by the number of degrees of overdetermination.]
Freud borrowed the term “overdetermined” to describe a curious phenomenon that he encountered on occasion when analyzing the dreams of his patients. A patient would recount a dream and then would be led to associate freely to each element of the dream [not to the dream as a whole], continuing until the train of associations ran out. Usually in a case of successful dream analysis the associations would lead to the repressed wishes or fantasies lying beneath each element of the dream. The dream would then be completely analyzed. But sometimes, even after each element had been fully explained, associations would continue and an entirely different set of repressed wishes and fantasies would surface. Dream elements that led in this way to two completely different repressed wishes, each by itself sufficient to explain the dream element, were said by Freud to be overdetermined. The mind, in effect economizing, found a way to give expression to two different repressed wishes by means of the same dream element. This was, Freud concluded, one of the many ways in which the laws regulating the unconscious differ from the laws governing conscious thought.
In the period following the publication of Das Kapital, an enormous, complex, many-sided debate sprang up among Marx’s legions of followers concerning the precise role of economic institutions and developments in the determination of social, political, legal, and other institutions and practices in society. Marx’s most dramatic claim, setting him against almost everyone writing before and during his lifetime, was that contrary to what everyone else thought, it was not the religion or the politics or the law or the philosophy of a society that determined its fundamental character and its historical development, but instead its system of the social relations of material production. His vivid and memorable teaching of the base and superstructure of a society captured this claim in an unforgettable image. The post-Marx debates focused on many aspects of his theories, none more contentiously than on this image of base and superstructure. Some of his followers argued that according to Marx the economic base was the sole determinant of the institutional and ideological superstructure. Others argued that this unidirectional causality held true only in the end or in the long run or in the last instance or fundamentally. And some said that there were a number of factors that determined the organization and direction of development of a society, of which the economic was only one, albeit the most important.
As I understand him, Althusser, confronting a debate in the French intellectual world between “orthodox” Marxists who offered a simplified base/superstructure analysis and anti-Marxists who rejected Marx’s insights, opted for the view that the evolution of a society has multiple determinants, of which the economic is the most important, but by no means the only, factor. So far so good. He then royally confused matters by referring to this as “overdetermination,” which was just the wrong term to use.
Well, that was good for me. I hope it was good for you.