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Monday, April 20, 2015


One of the students in my Marx course, Jack Denton, put me onto a very interesting review essay by Bruce Robbins in a journal called N+1 [although the original reference may have come from Chris, since I put Mr. Denton in touch with Chris for reading suggestions for the final paper in the course.]  I read the essay, which ranges widely over French Marxism of the last thirty years or more, in the course of reviewing a book by Etienne Balibar.  The essay prodded me to say a few things that have emerged from my close reexamination of Capital this semester.

You will have to forgive me if I say some things that I have said before.  I only know three chords on this guitar, so all my songs sound alike.

Bruce Robbins begins his review essay thus:  At a debate in southern California in 2007, the French philosopher Alain Badiou informed the French philosopher √Čtienne Balibar that he, Balibar, was a reformist. “And you, monsieur,” Balibar replied, “are a theologian.”

This theme, of reformism versus theology in the ranks of Marxists, runs through the entire essay.  In this dispute, I am clearly and unapologetically on the side of reformism, not theology, and I am quite convinced that Marx was as well.  Let me explain, at some length.  Since this is a song about the inadequacies of theology, let me begin with the Bible.

As told in the Old and New Testaments, human history is a story that unfolds according to God's plan in five metaphysical stages:  The Creation, The Fall, The Law, the Incarnation, and The Last Trump.  Man's ontological condition, his relationship to the Almighty, is completely transformed as each stage succeeds the preceding one.  In the first stage, man is without sin.  He walks and talks easily with God.  This stage, Eden, ends with the Fall, the violation of God's commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  After the Fall and the expulsion from Eden, man lives in sin.  Some time later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, which He renews with Noah.  He then gives to Moses his Law in the form of written Commandments.  The entire period of the Old Testament after the Fall, however long it lasts, and whatever secular events take place during it, is the time when Man lives in sin under The Law.  This stage in history comes to an abrupt end with the Incarnation, through which miraculous event God gives His only begotten Son to save man from the damnation that must otherwise be visited upon him for failing to obey the Law.  With the Passion of Christ, there begins a new stage, the one in which we now live.  In this stage, man is offered the miracle of undeserved salvation, through faith in the promise of Jesus Christ.  ["Belief in God" does not mean "Belief that God exists."  That is taken for granted.  It means belief that God will keep his promise of salvation to all those who trust unreservedly in that promise.]  History ends with the Last Trump, when the graves give up their dead and those who are saved sit at the footstool of the Lord forever in eternal bliss, while those who are damned are denied forever the presence of the Lord.

O.K.  That was fun.  The crucial thing to notice here is that the passage from one stage to the next, according to the Christian story, is abrupt, total, and irreversible.  Nothing of any importance remains the same.  Before the Fall, man is free of sin.  After the Fall, he bears the mark of Original Sin in his soul.  Before the Incarnation, man lives under the Law.  After the Incarnation, the Word is made Flesh, and salvation is by faith [since I am, in my heart of hearts, a Lutheran, I will say by faith alone, as Luther wrote in the margin of his copy of Paul's Epistles.]

Hegel immanentized the transcendent Christian story, and Marx secularized Hegel's version.  So the Creation, the Fall, the Law, and the Incarnation became Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, and Capitalism, with Socialism playing the role of the Last Trump.  BUT:  along the way, Marx had the genius to understand that the passage from one stage to the next is NOT abrupt, total, and irreversible.  In human history, the transition from one stage to the next is lengthy, complex, and ambiguous -- the product of the decisions, actions, and reactions of countless men and women over centuries.  Marx's work, so completely grounded in his archival historical research, was almost completely focused on the transition that had taken place within the memory of those then living, and indeed was only commencing in many parts of the world:  the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

As a young man, Marx, like all of his contemporaries, was mesmerized by the world-historical upheaval of the French Revolution, and although he understood even in his twenties that that event was the culmination, not the inauguration, of the centuries long transition from feudalism to capitalism, he allowed himself to hope that the next transition, from capitalism to socialism, would come abruptly, violently, and virtually immediately, even in lands like Prussia in which the first tender shoots of capitalist social relations were only beginning to thrust their heads above the soil.  Eventually, Marx knew better.  In 1859, he published the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, in the Preface to which he wrote these famous and very profound words:

" In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation."

The implication is clear, and thoroughly anti-theological:   The transition from capitalism to socialism [deo volente] must come about through the development within capitalism of the elements of what will eventually become socialist social relations of production.  In the absence of such developments, no movement, however orthodox, however courageous, however true to the ipsissima verba of Marx's writings, can accomplish a transition to socialism. 

Since in this neck of the ideological woods, as in the land of theological disputes, proof texts are much prized, I offer in closing this quotation from that most canonical of all texts, Capital Volume I.  In the long Chapter 10, "The Working Day," Marx details the devices by which factory owners seek to wring a bit more surplus labor time from their workers.  Here is the concluding paragraph:

"It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, [163] that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” [164] For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. [165] In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo!"

Take note, all you secular theologians, for whom concern about minimum wage laws or occupational safety and health regulations are a cop-out, a gradualist sell-out.  Karl Marx himself calls for the workers to organize and struggle for passage in England of a bill limiting the working day to ten hours.

Balibar is right.  Badiou is wrong.



Last year, median family income was $53,891.  [This means half of the households were lower, half higher.]   One thousand times $53,891 is $53,891,000.  [I take it this is not controversial, although these days, you never know which parts of math and science Republicans will object  to.]

My proposal:  No young person should inherit more than a millennium of median household income [in 2015 dollars.  Who knows what the dollar will be worth in 3015?]  So, when a billionaire or multi-millionaire dies, he or she can leave $53,891,000 to each child, and all the rest will be taxed by the state.  The proceeds can be used to reduce the FICA tax.

Friday, April 17, 2015


In his comment on the subject of stereotype threat, Charles Parsons reports that when he knew Steele, twenty years ago, Steele had worked on a way to circumvent stereotype threat.  That got me thinking about why it was that we in the UMass Afro-American Studies Department had such success with students who, on their GRE exams, clearly exhibited signs of the condition.  I think several factors contributed to our success, all of which are relevant to a much broader variety of stereotype threat situations.

First of all, as I mentioned, when I saw the discrepancy between the test scores and the student performances, I stopped requiring the test scores.  It would have been a colossal waste of time to try to devise some way of administering the Graduate Record Examination that compensated for the baleful effects of stereotype threat.  We had not worked and struggled and argued and pleaded with those responsible for approving our program so that we could ask people for their GRE scores!  The supposed purpose of the GRE scores was to identify promising candidates for our doctoral program, and when I saw that the test was not working as it was supposed  to work, I stopped looking at the scores.  A little experience proved that the very best identifier for promising students was the writing sample, so after the first year, the Admissions Committee, which was everyone in the Department, read every applicant's sample.  This sounds so obvious as to be trivial, but in fact it is not trivial at all.  People obsess about PSAT scores, SAT scores, ACT scores, LSAT scores, GRE scores, and all manner of "objective" [i.e., easy to grade] tests, as though the goal of a successful educational system is to raise those scores as much as possible and eliminate any variations associated with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity [or height, weight, and hair color, for that matter.]

Notice that our decision was grounded in a certain self-confidence and also in a capacity for patience.  We were quite certain that we were perfectly capable of judging whether a student was progressing satisfactorily to a doctoral degree that we could be proud of, and we were willing to wait the years it would take before we had been proven right by the dissertations, publications, and job placements of our students.  In a curious way, we were aided and abetted in this self-confidence by the fact that most of the rest of the university thought our program was an academically low-quality sop to Black folks, so they did not expect our students to measure up to their distorted standards of excellence.  Indeed, as I recount in my Autobiography, the Provost as much as said so to our faces in the one meeting we had with him.

The second important fact is that when those students showed up to begin their graduate education, they found a Department all the members of which, save myself, were Black and very, very smart.  I was the Graduate Program Director, of course, but the students pretty quickly twigged onto the fact that I knew very little about Afro-American Studies.  As I liked to joke, I was the shabbes goy of the Department, the little White boy brought in from the next village to do all the scut work no self-respecting academic wanted to spend time on.  There were White students [and Latino and Asian students], but Black, not White, was the "unmarked racial category" in our Department.  Could a Black student make it as an academic?  The question simply never came up.  Since John Bracey and Mike Thelwell and Esther Terry and Bill Strickland and Ernie Allen were all Black, the question was as fatuous as asking, in the Harvard Philosophy Department in which I studied, whether a man could be a good philosopher.

The third reason is that for all of the faculty in the Department, the success of our students was desperately important.  Everyone save for myself had wanted a doctoral program in Afro-American Studies for many years.  Now we had one, and these were our students.  They were in no sense an elite group of students.  Not one of them had come either from a major research university or from an elite private liberal arts college.  One of them was a woman in middle age, and as the years went by, we enrolled a number of such atypical students.  We made very heavy demands on them as students, and held them to a high standard, but we were prepared to give them all the attention and help they needed to succeed.

In the dinner with Steele to which I alluded in my blog post, Esther Terry [the Chair] and I talked about this collective commitment to the success of our students.  Steele said, rather wryly, that in the Stanford Psychology Department, of which he was then Chair, his colleagues viewed graduate students either as useful lab workers or else as an annoyance.

I think there are some interesting lessons to be learned from our experience at UMass.  But if anyone wants to replicate our success, maybe the first thing to do is cancel the Graduate Record Examination.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


OK, in reply to Magpie, as I suspected, Wikipedia has a big article on stereotype threat with lots of actually specific examples.  Take a look.


A few moments ago I was idly channel surfing and I stumbled on a 2005 episode of Gilmore Girls, a show for which I have always had a secret soft spot [I mention this just in case anyone still harbors the illusion that I am an intellectual.]  Rory is sitting in a college lounge reading a big, thick paperback book when a male friend comes in.  "What are you reading?" he asks, "Business or pleasure?"  [I will not even try to identify Rory.]  She holds up the book, and he reads the title:  "The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.  Pleasure, I assume."

I was blown away.  That has to be the one and only time that Barrington Moore, Jr. has made it onto prime time TV.  I am so envious.  Marcuse, of course, was another matter entirely.  There was even an old New Yorker cartoon referencing him, which I think confers sizable hit points.


My light-hearted post about "imposter syndrome" elicited more than the usual number of comments, perhaps not surprisingly.  In the same passage of the student review document where I encountered that faux term for the first  time was a reference to stereotype threat, which is in  fact a very serious phenomenon that has been the subject of a great deal of fascinating research.  It occurred to me that I ought to say a bit about stereotype threat, for those of you who are not familiar with the subject.  [One caveat:  I read up on this a long time ago and am writing from memory, so I may get some of the details wrong.]

It has long been known that African-American students underperform on standardized tests of the sort that have become ubiquitous in American elementary, secondary, and tertiary education.  When I say they "underperform," I mean not merely that their test scores are, on average, markedly lower than those of White students from the same socio-economic backgrounds, but also that their test scores do not comport with the quality of their minds and of their academic work, as observed and evaluated by experienced teachers.  This underperformance occurs at every level, even among Black students who have done quite well in earlier stages of their education.

Let me give one example from my personal experience.  In 1995, the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, of which I was then a member, received the first applications for our ground-breaking doctoral program, which would welcome its first class of doctoral students the next Fall.  I was scheduled to be the inaugural Graduate Program Director, a position I held for the best twelve years of my long career.  We received twenty-seven applications that first year, and the Graduate Record Examination scores were uniformly abysmally low.  Applicants with fine undergraduate records and interesting credentials appeared, if these scores were to be trusted, to be incapable of putting together coherent English sentences.  We had designed an unusually demanding first year program, the centerpiece of which was [and still is] a two semester double seminar, meeting five hours a week, in which the students would read fifty major works of Afro-American history, politics, literature, and sociology, and write a paper on each of the fifty works.  I was extremely apprehensive, fearful that our program would be far beyond the capabilities of the seven students we had admitted, but my colleagues assured me everything would be just fine.  Well, the students showed up, and they were not illiterate at all!  They indeed did just fine, and a number of them went on to earn doctorates, get tenure track jobs, and publish first-rate scholarly books.  I like to think that I am capable of learning from experience, even though I am a philosopher who is expected to view things sub specie aeternitatis, so as Graduate Program Director I deleted the Graduate Record Exam from the requirements for admission and substituted a requirement of a substantial sample of written work.  The program flourished, graduating a higher percentage of its doctoral students than almost  any other doctoral program in the Humanities, nation-wide.  The UMass Afro-Am doctoral students dominate the annual conventions and have assembled a brilliant record of publication.  The applicants, most of whom apply to several doctoral programs, still have appallingly low GRE scores.

What's up?

A good many years ago, a brilliant African-American psychologist named Claude Steele asked the same question, and launched a fascinating series of experiments to find out.  [When I had dinner with Steele in Amherst, MA many years ago, he was the Chair of the Stanford Psychology Department.  He is currently the Executive Vice-Chancellor and Provost of UC Berkeley.]  Steele formulated the hypothesis that Black students are well aware of the widely-held view that they are dumber than White students, and this awareness, which Steele labeled "stereotype threat," undermines their ability to do well on the sorts of "intelligence tests" that the White world expects them to do badly on.  Steele devised a variety of experimental protocols to test this hypothesis, and again and again, the data proved him correct.  For example, Steele would put together a multiple-choice test, and give it to two groups of college students [mixed White and Black.]  The first group would be told that they were being tested for intelligence;  the second group, given the identical test in identical testing circumstances, would be told that they were being tested on their general knowledge.  Sure enough, the first group of Black students did markedly worse than the second.

Steele then broadened his investigation to other stereotypes.  Women are commonly thought not to be able to do math, so Steele tested two groups of women on the same math exam.  Each group was asked to fill out a little personal data form before taking the test  -- name, address, age, college class, etc.  The last question on the first form, answered just before taking the test, was "gender."  The second form omitted that item.  Lo and behold, the women who were called on to identify themselves as women just before taking the test did worse than those who were not so asked!  Steele was even able to replicate the result by putting the gender question first on the form in one case and last in the other.

Some of Steele's associates tried the idea out on Black and White college athletes.  Two mixed groups of quite physically fit young men were run through a miniature golf course.  One group were told that they were being tested on their golfing ability [golf was a White sport back when the test was run, before Tiger Woods.]  The other group were told they were being tested on their innate athletic ability [which, according to a different stereotype, is an area of Black male superiority.]  Sure enough, the results confirmed the effect of the stereotypes on the subjects.

By the way, here is a truly weird fact.  Claude Steele is a man of the left whose work has done a great deal to counteract the baleful effects of the negative stereotypes of African-Americans and other non-White populations.  Steele has a twin brother, named Shelby Steele, who also has had a distinguished academic career.  Shelby Steele describes himself as a Black Conservative who opposes affirmative action and wrote a book describing Obama as a child of a mixed marriage [as are Claude and Shelby] who has a life-long need to "be black."  Shelby Steele is a fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford.

Go figure.




On April 5th I posted a little item about Susie's broken watering can and the speed with which I was able to order a replacement thanks to  Jim expressed some doubt as to whether I would be able to find the same item, and asked for an update.  Yesterday a big box arrived, filled with styrofoam peanuts.  Nested inside was identically the same watering can, minus the leak.  For all I know, it was the last one in the known world, but it is ours now, and Susie is delighted.  [It has a long goose neck and a little spray device as well, all in fetching blue plastic.  A keeper.]