Anti-Capitalist Economist Prof. Richard Wolff Brings the Gospel of Workers’ Democracy to Overflowing California Crowds
“I’ve got to pinch myself; I’m having the time of my life,” proclaimed Prof. Richard Wolff, as standing room only throngs mobbed a University of California, Riverside classroom and what KPFK Interim Program Director Alan Minsky noted was “a union hall in Hollywood.” At that January 18 event co-presented by Pacifica’s KPFK and LAProgressive.com at the Musicians’ Hall Local 47, rows of seats had to be added plus folding and patio doors opened to accommodate an overflow multitude of about 550 people. Like the estimated 650 listeners at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on Jan. 15, they eagerly flocked to hear the unapologetically self-avowed “Marxian economist,” who, for most of his life, had toiled in the obscurity of academia and far Left circles.
“It’s not me; it’s the message, which has remained the same,” Wolff said modestly, as his critique of capitalism has propelled him into the limelight with repeat appearances on Bill Moyers’ and Charlie Rose’s TV shows, plus much radio, print and online coverage. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, as the contradictions and collapse of a capitalist system no longer able to deliver the goods become increasingly blatantly obvious, Wolff is finding an increasingly growing, receptive audience. Instead of stressing the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Wolff cleverly focuses instead on the “democratization of the workplace” as an alternative to capitalism’s failure.
During his Hollywood address, which was introduced by LA Progressive’s Sharon Kyle and Dick Price and KPFK host Suzi Weissman and punctuated by applause and cheers, Wolff stated: “The capitalist workplace is one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth. Workers have no say over decisions affecting them. If you really gave a damn about democracy the workplace would be the first place to institute it… But the government goes to war to bring democracy to Iraq,” noted Wolff, who earned his B.A. from Harvard, a Master’s in economics from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California and a Ph.D. in economics from Yale.
In an interview Wolff indicated that workplace democratization was also the alternative to top-down Stalinist command models, wherein workers may have owned, but did not run, industries. “The main traditions of socialism and communism devoted themselves to changing the ownership of the means of production from private to social or national, and going from markets as a means of distribution to state planning. This has little or nothing to say about the organization of the enterprise itself. That was a major mistake and missing element that did a lot to undermine what traditional socialism did achieve,” observed Wolff, who favors proletarian participation in decision making, “giving socialism for the 21st century the transformative agenda about where we work, on the job… The working class, will see in a newly defined socialism, that gives them the power everyday at the workplace that they never had before, will prove to be much more attractive in the century to come.”
But this does not necessarily mean Wolff, who ran to be New Haven’s mayor and city councilman on the Green Party ticket in the 1980s, is bullish on bourgeois electoral politics, which he disdains as “corrupt.” Regarding Democrat Bill de Blasio’s winning New York City’s mayor’s race, Wolff, a Manhattanite who was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1942, told The Progressive, “His election reflects two things: A horror of an enormous number of New Yorkers at the spectacle of the [Michael] Bloomberg mayoral period. Three successive terms in which New York was made more and more of a playground for the richest people in society and more and more unaffordable for everybody else… He had a chosen successor, Democrat Christine Quinn, who’d been instrumental in allowing him to have a third term, because we had term limits… And she was endorsed by the real estate dealers… and the major newspapers, by a good number of unions.
“Bill de Blasio was considered a long shot at best and he made two decisions that were crucial. That he wasn’t going to hide from the basic question, that New York is either going to be made livable, affordable for the mass of people and not just the rich… He very effectively showed he himself is of the city — his wife is African American, he himself is a complicated mixture of ethnicities. The result was he could show ‘I’m breaking from the who-runs-the-city’ elite story to something new… I love to hear him say [NYC’s rich will be taxed to fund universal pre-K education], but even what he proposes will be very hard to get through the City Council, sold to the people through the mass media filter that will either silence him or distort what he has to say. But frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t gotten much further a set of programs so that when he compromises it’s still something. He’s quite modest in what he’s proposing and if he can’t even get that then we’re going to see very little change at all. It’s really a wait and see period; what will be the relationship between the rhetoric he used to mobilize support and what he can and will actually do?” Wolff pondered about the new mayor, who Bill Clinton — the president who’d signed into law the measure that ended the New Deal era Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated commercial and investment banks — administered the oath of office to at his inauguration.
Central to Wolff’s argument is that if workers sat on the board of directors of democratically-operated self-managed enterprises they wouldn’t vote for the wildly unequal distribution of profits to benefit a few and for cutbacks for the many. The Progressive asked Wolff why business leaders who have so much influence over economic policy in the U.S. and in Western Europe favor austerity? Doesn’t it reduce demand for their products, and thus lower their potential profits? The author of Capitalism Hits the Fan replied: “The question is good. Why are executives of corporations constantly looking for every conceivable way to lower labor costs? …The more successful capitalists are in cutting their wage costs, the less the money the workers will have to buy back what those same capitalists produce. It’s a contradiction in how this system works. Sure, businesses would like lots of purchases. But the only way to deal with a depressed economy that gets it in a position to have more purchases would be to tax the rich who are hoarding their money and not spending it in an economic downturn and move that money into the hands of the middle and lower classes, because they’re in a situation where they’ll spend it as fast as they get it. That would solve the problem of demand, but only at the expense of the rich and corporations. They’ve made a choice: They’d rather tough it out, stick it to the mass of people, even at the cost of losing customers, than be the one who gets hit with the tab for boosting the masses’ purchasing power,” Wolff explained.
The University of Massachusetts in Amherst Professor Emeritus and Visiting Professor in the graduate program for international affairs at the New School University went on to say: “Here’s where globalization comes in. U.S. businesses favor austerity here because they want to decrease the power of labor, save on labor costs, not to be taxed and they see a way to pull that off by shifting the sales of their products from the U.S.’ depressed, austerity-riddled economy to the exploding economies of Brazil, China, India and so on. Globalization gives American businesses an option: If austerity cripples purchasing power here they still get to sell goods; they’re just going to sell them elsewhere. The U.S. is being reconfigured to become more of an export-focused economy; that’s explicit to Obama policy and a way of managing demand when austerity crunches your own working class’s income.”
Asked what the 21st century relevancy of 19th century economist Karl Marx is, Richard the Red replied: “There are three broad types of economic theory: The mainstream is Neoclassical economics; the critique of it, which, like Neoclassical economics, loves and favors capitalism, but thinks left to its own devices private capitalism breaks down and therefore needs government intervention, which is called Keynesian economics. The third alternative is Marxian economics. It differs from the first two because it doesn’t support or like capitalism. It thinks the world can do better than capitalism and self-consciously is a critical approach to capitalism, saying it’s full of flaws and contradictions… If you think capitalism is a system that has major flaws, such as a recurring business cycle of the sort of the one we’ve been in since 2007, and that it produces ever widening gaps between rich and poor, then you’ve answered the question about Marxian economics…
“If you want to understand an economy, not only from the point of view of people who love it, but also from the point of view of people who are critical and think we can do better, then you need to study Marxian economics as part of any serious attempt to understand what’s going on. Not to do it is to exclude yourself from the critical tradition,” Wolff insisted.
The people’s economist added that the establishment of workers’ democratically self-directed enterprises “is the transition from and beyond capitalism.” But during his swing through Oakland, Berkeley, Riverside and L.A., even the big bad Wolff against Wall Street was unable to evade the inescapable “invisible hand” of the market. The popular Wolff, who was treated like a radical rock star, was unable to supply all of the demands for him to speak on the Left Coast or to answer most written questions asked via cards at the packed Musicians’ Hall speech.
Indeed, the overspill throng attending that three-hour plus address literally learned their lot in life, when those parking at an adjacent CVS lot faced tow trucks, which vehicles parked in the union’s public lot did not — thus proving a point about private property.
The new book co-authored by Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.
Photographs: Ed Rampell