Who’s Afraid of Richard Wolff?

Who’s Afraid of Richard Wolff?

by Griffin Ritze
Richard Wolff speaking at NKU Photo: Justin Jeffre

For generations, working people have shied away from Socialism as the political alternative to the inequality and misery generated by the excesses of capitalism. In the mainstream, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to indicate the culmination of the international Socialist political project and its defeat. In the following decades, capitalism developed into a near global consensus through the military, economic, and political domination of the United States.

In recent times of economic recession and stagnation in the United States. International capitalist investment has driven India and China into a period of incredible economic growth while developing countries and post-industrial economies like the U.S. compete for investment resources. Since 1998, China for example has achieved between 7.8-14% annual growth in terms of GDP compared to the 3.8% average growth of the U.S. economy during the post-war boom of roughly 1946-1973. (GDP meaning, the gross domestic product: the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country in one year.)

With the increasing demand of consumer goods brought on by the postwar boom, the capitalists in the U.S. realized that they could meet the demand for consumer goods while generating increasing profits by outsourcing the production of consumer goods to cheap labor markets in other countries, such as China, where they could pay workers much lower wages. For working people in the U.S. and throughout the world this has meant a loss of jobs and income due to the increasing global competition between workers.

The long term effects of this reconfiguration of the global economy were not anticipated by working people in the U.S. Through the economic gains won by unions in the U.S. and the civil rights reforms won by movements of people of color, women, LGBT people, and disabled people it seemed that living conditions for the working class would infinitely increase and expand to those social groups that were historically shut out of middle class ascendance.

The prosperity of the postwar boom was not sustainable. A series of national and global economic crises unfolded throughout the 70’s and into the present that further displaced investment to wherever it was most profitable for the capitalist system. In the U.S. factories were closed, the city centers were abandoned by the ‘white flight’ of capital into the ever expanding suburbs. Jobs in the U.S. were outsourced to cheaper international labor markets, lost to unemployment, or whittled away by automation and demands by the management class for increased productivity from workers. Unions suffered massive decreases in membership and strength as the capitalists beat back wages, employment benefits, and working conditions through collusion with the labor union bureaucracy.

For the average household in the U.S., incomes stagnated from 1973 to the present while productivity rose substantially. Wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of people as income inequality grew. Today, the top one percent of income earners in the U.S. hold 40% of the wealth. Globally, the 67 richest people on the planet own more wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest.

Throughout this period of increasing hardship for working people in the U.S. Socialism had been cast aside as a failed experiment. The limits and failures of the Soviet project came to be seen as a condemnation of a political alternative to capitalism that could enhance the lives of working people and end the domination of the capitalist imperial powers.

Critics of capitalism in the U.S. who were censored and marginalized through the channels of capitalist ideological rule during the Cold War era were cast aside by the 1990’s as irrelevant or crazy. There was a new global capitalist consensus as indicated by international trade agreements like NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) which further displaced production of goods such as cars and allowed companies like Volkswagen to pay Mexican autoworkers $8.00 an hour today over the average $35 an hour that an American autoworker is paid. Workers in the United States and other post-industrial Western countries were forced to compete against workers in developing nations in a global ‘race to the bottom’ for the lowest wages that the capitalists could get away with.

Capitalism’s critics, supposedly made irrelevant – have become increasingly louder and more influential since the most recent economic crisis that began in 2007.

Richard Wolff, one such critic has observed a dramatic surge of interest in Socialism as a renewed political force in recent years: “For the future of the left, there is encouragement in the more positive view of socialism among younger generations. In a recent YouGov poll, 52% of Americans had a favorable view of capitalism, while only 26% had a favorable view of Socialism. However, among those younger than 30s, 36% had a positive view of socialism, while 39% had a positive view of capitalism.”

Wall in Eden Park made by the Works Progress Administration Photo: Justin Jeffre
Wall in Eden Park made by the Works Progress Administration Photo: Justin Jeffre

Richard Wolff, has been a professor of economics nearly all of his adult life and was trained as an economist at Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. Wolff made critical contributions to Marxist economic and political theory during a time when the capitalist ideological consensus was pervasive throughout academia in the U.S. and all of society’s social and cultural structures. (For context, Janet Yellen, the current chair of the Federal Reserve in the U.S. Was one of Wolff’s classmates at Harvard.)

Through this dark period for capitalism’s critics in the university, Richard Wolff remained convinced of the fundamental instability and injustice of the capitalist system. In 2011, following the cry against rising income inequality in the U.S. embodied in Occupy Wall Street, Wolff began a weekly radio program called Economic Update. The program initially aired on one public radio station in California and has since expanded to dozens of radio outlets and become wildly popular as an online podcast.

Economic Update provides working people an analysis of economic developments nationally and globally in a plainly spoken and accessible style of delivery. Wolff’s dry sense of humor and relatable observations have proven to be instructional devices for economic and political theories that can be daunting for people to comprehend without guidance or encouragement.

Wolff has also been a longtime advocate for cooperative democratic worker ownership of businesses within the capitalist economy. Imagining Socialism as a renewed political project, for Wolff, demands the proven success of alternative methods of organizing the workplace under capitalism: “An enterprise only qualifies as “Socialist” once the distinction between employers and employees within it has been abolished. When workers collectively and democratically produce, receive and distribute the profits their labor generates, the enterprise becomes Socialist. Such enterprises can then become the base of a Socialist economy – its micro-level foundation – supporting whatever ownership system (public and/or private) and distribution system (planning and/or market) constitute that economy’s macro level.”

Additionally, Wolff is the co-founder of Democracy at Work a non-profit 501(c)3 organization that advocates for the creation of workers self-directed enterprises (WSDEs) through the conversion of existing capitalist enterprises and the support of new businesses in that model which centers the ownership and democratic control of production in the hands of the workers. Amidst the rising calls for a $15 minimum wage and meaningful employment for working people – worker self-directed enterprises are an important project that points to the potential of a Socialist movement that can inspire alternative ways of organizing the workplace and the economy.

The taboo of Socialism has been broken in the United States. The capitalist class has abandoned working people throughout the world in their search for cheaper labor and larger profits. Millions of people have been inspired by the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and his proud identification as a ‘Democratic Socialist’. The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized the struggle for civil rights and fueled the desire for a politics that rejects capitalism.

Critics like Richard Wolff are an important voice among many for a renewed international Socialist project. Working people throughout the world are beginning to realize the power that we can achieve today when we begin to think and act collectively. In a time of growing class consciousness in the U.S. it is crucial that we begin to move toward a Socialist politics that can exceed what was seemed to be impossible only years ago.