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Friday, October 24, 2014


Earlier today, I received an interesting inquiry from Lex Gill, a student at McGill who is taking a course with a distinguished political theorist who recently joined the McGill Law Faculty.  Since it raises a question that may be of general interest to readers of this blog, I have decided to reply in a post rather than by private e-mail.  Ms. Gill has given me permission to use her name.  Here is her entire message:

“Dear Professor Wolff:

My name is Lex, and I'm a student in a class on legal philosophy offered by Prof. Daniel Weinstock at McGill University. I'm writing because I hope you might be able to clarify something in your writing, if you have a moment. Please don't feel under any obligation to respond - I'm sure you're quite busy and it's quite possible my question has been answered elsewhere.  A few weeks ago the class read excerpts from In Defense of Anarchism in the context of a larger conversation about law's authority. My understanding of your argument in favour of unanimous, direct democracy is that any compromise to such a model (i.e., representative democracy or majoritarianism) poses either similar logistical barriers as direct democracy does (a 'strict agency' model of representation) or fails to respect the principle of individual autonomy. 

Something that I didn't understand about this argument in favour of unanimous, direct democracy is maybe put rather crudely here:  what about the problem of a minority veto?  It seems to me that you can easily imagine a political community where an extraordinary vast majority of people share a position, but one or two individuals disagree. In exercising that right to disagree, in your model of unanimity their vote would amount to a veto.  To this end, I don't believe that a system of unanimity actually protects from the kind of marginalization that ends up being a risk in majoritarian democracies. I mean that, in the case of a majoritarian democracy, one could imagine the possibility of a permanent minority. But what about a permanent majority that is nonetheless unable to act in their own interests? What about a situation where a system of unanimity actually does nothing to protect minority interests, but rather privileges an unjust status quo?   Surely some element of the principle of autonomy includes a "freedom to" as well as a "freedom from"? I'm wondering how then, at least in an ideal model, you would accommodate for this problem? 

As I said, it could be possible that you've answered this question elsewhere or many times before, but I spoke to Prof. Weinstock and he was unsure how you would respond so he suggested I send an email.

Thank you for your time and thought on this.  Lex Gill

I am not at all busy, and I am delighted to see that something I wrote forty-nine years ago and published forty-four years ago is still being discussed intelligently.  Mr. Gill raises several important points.  Let me begin by saying that I intended unanimous direct democracy as a limiting case designed to exhibit the impossibility of a de jure legitimate state under any but the most constrained of circumstances.  It is common when making truly rigorous arguments [in logic or mathematics, say] to consider what happens in limiting cases or at the boundaries.  If I may give an example from Classical Political Economy [since that is in my mind just now], the thesis that commodities in a situation of perfect competition exchange at their labor values is true in the limiting case of a zero rate of profit.  The price equations, with π = 0, reduce to the labor value equations and the proposition is trivial.  The reason for showing this is certainly not to suggest that there ever is a zero profit rate in a functioning capitalist economy, but to make it easy to see just exactly why prices deviate from labor values save when there is, in Marx’s terms, equal organic composition of capital.

Analogously, my purpose in arguing that a unanimous direct democracy preserves the autonomy of citizens while establishing the moral bindingness of the laws of the state is to set aside for a bit the problems attendant upon representation and focus rather on the insoluble problems with majority rule or any other way of transforming the will of individual citizens into a unified legislative will of a de jure legitimate state.

That said, it happens that when I was writing In Defense of Anarchism, there was some interesting discussion going on of cases that could be subsumed under the rubric of “unanimous direct democracy.”  For example, the first version of John Rawls’ theory of justice [in his essay, “Justice as Fairness”] analyzed the circumstances under which a community of individuals would arrive at unanimous agreement on a set of principle for settling disputes concerning questions of distributive justice.  Earlier still, modern neo-classical economic theory devoted a good deal of energy examining what could be said about situations in which unanimity partial orderings could be identified under conditions of what came to be referred to as Pareto optimality.  And of course all classical social contract theory sooner or later appeals to an agreement founding a political community whose bindingness on the participants is inferred from a unanimous social contract.

Ms. Gill is of course completely correct that unanimous direct democracy would be utterly unworkable as the decision rule for a real society.  [I believe in the nineteenth century the Polish parliament, made up of nobles, operated on a rule of unanimity.  Needless to say, not much got done.]  By the way, my elaboration of a framework for Majoritarian Direct Democracy – what I called television democracy – was really meant as a bit of Swiftian satire intended to expose the anti-democratic beliefs of political theorists and commentators who pretend to be partisans of Democracy.  But if I am not mistaken, some folks in Canada actually got a grant not long after my little book appeared to try it out.  I have no idea what results they came up with.

It has been forty-four years since Harper Torchbooks published In Defense of Anarchism, all 82 pages of it, and unless I am very much mistaken, no one has laid a glove on the argument in the intervening time, so I think we can take it as an established fact that I was right.  Since it is very rarely the case in Philosophy that anyone is right, I take some pride in that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Many of you have read the first two parts of William Polk's important essay on the history of the Palestinian situation, archived on August 8, 2014 and September 1, 2014 on, accessible via the link at the top of this page.  Earlier today I received part three.  I have now read it and uploaded it to  It is I think essential reading for anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My thanks go out to Bill for the enormous labor he has put into this three-part essay.


The Batobus Jean Gabin has returned!  It was probably just making a movie on location.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Observing capitalism in its earliest stages, Marx argued correctly that it was the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the world.  He saw that as it expanded and displaced previous social relations of production, capitalism eroded religious, ethnic, cultural, national, racial, and gender divisions, seeking always to reduce the labor force as far as possible to a homogeneous mass of workers who could be exchanged for one another readily on the factory floor or in the office.  Although he fatally over-emphasized this tendency, as I have argued in my essay “The Future of Socialism,” his insight was correct.

Sitting in a café in the Marais after a visit to the Jewish Museum here in Paris, I found myself reflecting on the way in which Marx’s insight helped me to make sense of the frustrating limitations of the dramatically successful liberation movements on which liberals have focused so much of their energy in the past fifty years or so.  For someone of my age, the social changes in America since the forties and fifties have been astonishing and exhilarating.  The Black Liberation Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and now the nascent Hispanic movement have changed the cultural and political life of America in ways that are clearly non-reversible, for all the desperate efforts of hysterical reactionaries.

But during that same period, economic inequality has steadily increased, the labor union movement has all but died, and the public discourse has moved markedly to the right on all matters economic.

The simple truth is that none of the “liberation” movements had an economically radical thrust.  In effect, their demands were variations on the same theme:  We Want In!  We demand to be and to be treated as first-class citizens, not second-class citizens, of this capitalist society – which is, after all, just another way of saying We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!

Although this thrust of capitalism is universal, there are always local variations.  In nineteenth century America, for example, Capital struck a deal with white men, including immigrants.  In return for excluding Black men freed by the Civil War from the better industrial jobs, thereby reducing the threat of unemployment to White men, owners were able to hold down wages.  Black women were excluded even from such jobs as department store salesperson until after the Second World War, and in the successful drive to gain the vote for women, the White women who led the suffrage movement deliberately excluded Black women from their demands.

But generally speaking, Capital favors the inclusion of excluded sub-populations in the labor force, for the increase in the numbers of those looking for jobs keeps wages low.  It was not at all surprising that when the Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of the consideration of race in the admissions processes of the University of Michigan, large corporations filed amicus briefs in favor of the university’s practices.

We now find ourselves at a moment when the last great liberation movement, for the LGBT community, is on a clear path to success, but there is very little evidence of a powerful groundswell of support for economic justice.  To be sure, the obscene rise in the inequality of income and wealth in America has finally become a subject of public discussion.  But at least thus far, even such brilliantly theatrical efforts as the Occupy Movement have had little or no impact on electoral politics.  We will soon see a successful effort by Hillary Clinton to secure first the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency and then the presidency itself.  I would be quite surprised if Clinton is not president for the eight years following the Obama presidency.  And yet there is not the slightest hint of anything remotely progressive about Hillary Clinton’s economic beliefs, commitments, or programs.

Liberation politics has run its course in America.  Where the demand, the energy, the drive for economic progressivism will come from, I do not know.  As for socialism, don’t get me started.

Monday, October 20, 2014


We are now just two weeks from the midterm elections, and it is becoming clear that the Democrats are likely to lose control of the Senate.  It is not a done deal, were the feckless, ne’er-do-well Democratic base to get off its collective duff and just wander over to the polls to vote, we could avoid the unpleasantness of Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, but I am afraid the outcome universally considered most likely will in fact be the outcome that we get, so it is not too early to speculate on what it will all mean.  Herewith some idle guesses, worth roughly as much as the effort they cost me to put into words.  Treat them accordingly.

First of all, I think we can assume the day of the filibuster is over, so the Republicans will be able to pass any legislation they wish.  Getting it signed is of course another matter.  This will present the Senate Republicans with a very difficult problem.  The House Republicans will certainly wish to repeal the Affordable care Act and pass all manner of anti-abortion legislation, etc.  But in 2016, the electoral map will as unfavorable to the Senate Republicans as the 2014 map is to the Democrats, so the vulnerable Republican senators will not wish to have their fingerprints on a good deal of reactionary legislation that could come back to haunt them in 2016.  Some very interesting fights may spring up within the Republican Party.

There will be two months between the loss of the Senate and the installation of the new Senators, so there is in fact time to fill some more vacant federal judgeships.  Unfortunately [and quite incomprehensibly] Obama has been derelict in nominating candidates for District Court and Appeals Court judgeships.  The Bush White House was quite industrious in this regard, with a large staff in the White House Counsel’s Office devoted to the matter.  Under Obama, this function has been understaffed and neglected.  Why?  It beats me.  Doing that would have been a freebie.  It is an example not so much of ideological failing as sheer malfeasance.

In the wake of a loss of the Senate, Hillary Clinton will move up the announcement of her candidacy for the presidency in order to present herself as the salvation of disheartened liberals.  This will be a fraud, but it will work, and as liberals watch the efforts of a mobilized and energized Republican Party to dismantle the last tottering structures of the New Deal legacy, they will allow themselves to be conned into thinking that Clinton is in some manner a savior.  In the absence of a real liberal candidate, she will waltz into the nomination and win the 2016 Presidential race against some far right crazy put up by Republican right wingers convinced their moment has come.

The next ten years – my eighties – are going to be unusually difficult for someone of my persuasion.  But with any luck, my nineties will be more cheerful.  Since the Tigger in me is irrepressible, I shall approach my centenary with a light heart.  Of course, by then my morning walk may take me most of the day.


Sunday, October 19, 2014


I have on occasion spoken disparagingly of the quality of classical music in Paris, but last night Susie and I went to a simply lovely concert that forces me to withdraw my disapproval.  An organization of early music ensembles formed by young students and graduates of music schools in France has been putting on something called Festival Marin-Marais after the great seventeenth century viole player who was played by Gérard Depardieu in the beautiful film about Sainte-Colombe, Tous les Matins du Monde.  [In the film, Depardieu’s son plays Marin Marais as a young man.]  The festival consists of eighteen concerts, between September and November.  We went to the Temple du Foyer de l’Ȃme on the curiously named rue du Pasteur-Wagner just north of Place de la Bastille.  The concert, devoted to music of the seventeenth century, combined the efforts of two groups:  Atys, six young women, three of whom play baroque violins and three of whom play violas da gamba, and Quadrivium Consort, five young men who play natural trumpets [no valves or keys] and a variety of oddly shaped cornets.  The concert featured music by several composers of whom I had never heard, such as Johann Vierdanck and Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky.  It was a delight.  Early music is alive and well in Paris.

To get into the concert, I had not only to pay for tickets [dirt cheap – ten Euros each] but also fill out a form which asked, among other things, what instrument I play!  This got me two cards, with our names on them, which apparently will gain us entrance to the remaining concerts.  I was so delighted that as we left I dropped a fifty Euro bill in the collection basket.

Because we got there early, we were able to sit in the front row, and once again I observed something I have noticed before.  What follows is a bit of inside baseball, so those not enamored of early music can surf on over to the Huffington Post.  Baroque violins [and violas] differ from modern instruments in three notable respects.  They use gut strings, not metal strings; they use bows differently constructed; and they do not have chin rests.  The consequence of the first two differences is that they make a softer, less brilliant sound.  The absence of the chin rest makes it harder to play in the higher positions.  [In first position, the player makes use of the open strings and supports the instrument with the thumb under its neck.  To shift to higher positions, you must move the left hand up the neck, until finally, in the very highest positions, it looks as though the performer is trying to stick her finger in her right ear.  The chin rest is designed to allow the performer to clamp the violin between the chin and the shoulder and hold it so that the left hand is free to move up and down between positions.]  I watched the three women playing baroque violins, and I think I am correct that not once did they ever have to play in anything but the first position, even though the music they were playing was on occasion quite complex.  I came away thinking that with a little practice I could play that music.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


It has been pointed out to me that it is probably a bad idea to talk on my blog about my concerns regarding the course, as the students will find their way to my blog and read what I have written.  So I am going to remove my posts [including this one after a few days] and the comments and talk about something else.  You can always contact me by e-mail.