Posted 9 years ago on Aug. 13, 2012, 3 p.m. EST by PeterKropotkin
from Oakland, CA
This content is user submitted and not an official statement
by Sarah Jaffe and Richard Wolff.
The economic crisis of the past five years has caused a lot of people around the world to question the very foundations of our system -- is capitalism really the best way to do things? One of the biggest problems, though, is that there seems to be no other way to run an economy. Communism has been discredited—the Soviet Union failed, and China has moved to a strange hybrid that at times seems to take the worst of both communism and capitalism—and no one's got an alternative.
Dr. Richard D. Wolff has spent the better part of his life as a critic of capitalism. Since the rest of the world caught up with his critiques, he's spent some time trying to do just that—come up with an alternative. He's been studying cooperatives and collectively run, worker-owned businesses for a while now, and he's launched a new Web site, Democracy at Work , to explore the concept. He's also got a new book coming out in September from Haymarket Books, titled Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism , in which he makes a case for worker-owned co-ops as an alternative system that presents a real challenge to the way we do things now.
Wolff took some time to talk to AlterNet about his new projects, the Mondragon Corporation  in Spain that forms the basis of many of his arguments for the potential of successful collective enterprise, and some real-world ideas to revitalize the labor movement, rebuild the economy, create jobs, and most of all, give Americans more freedom where they spend the majority of their lives: on the job.
Sarah Jaffe: I want to start off by asking about the Democracy at Work Web site and your upcoming book. Richard Wolff: I guess the best way to say this is that over the last three years, my life, just personally, was completely transformed by this [economic] crisis. I decided to say goodbye to the University of Massachusetts, where I was teaching, and come to New York City. I left in 2008 and to say the least, the crisis was already underway.
I got swept up in a peculiar way because I'm a critic of capitalism. It's what I've done all my life; I've written books and articles, but most of the time I'm the edge guy, the strange one, the one who doesn't fit. My parents are immigrants, English is my third language, so as an immigrant, you have to make up for what was interrupted or stolen in a sense from your parents. They hope to recoup what they couldn't do in life through you. There was no question I had to be the good student, I had to play a musical instrument, I had to be on the football team, so I did all those things. I was always marginal but because I had been a good student, I went to Harvard and then to Stanford and then my Ph.D. At Yale.
By American standards, I'm a poster kid for all that stuff. It's all phony as a three-dollar bill, what goes on in these schools, I can assure you. The metaphor I use is when you watch an ad for some soap and the ad says, “If you use this soap your sex life will be improved.” They want your money and they're going to tell you anything to buy that stupid soap.
Harvard, that's what they do. It's the same gambit. You'll get an education more or less like you get anywhere else, with one exception—the people have been sold a bill of goods and they believe it. So I was the radical economist, but I could function. You rolled your eyes, as if, "What happened to this nice young man, somebody hit him on the head with a frying pan and he got a little crazy."
The irony is, after the crisis then suddenly capitalism doesn't look so good. Wait a minute, there's something wrong. Who can we get to talk about it? And the answer is not too many people, because you made it unbearable for the last 30 years. But I had been able to get a job at U Mass where I was paid to be a radical economist. I made them sign a letter when they hired me that I am understood to teach Marxian economics. They said "Why do you want such a letter?" I said "Because I don't want some pint-sized legislator coming down the road later saying I'm not doing my job!" I have that letter in my files to this day.
So the joke is, for the last three or four years, I'm a rare commodity. I do two, three, four interviews almost every day, I write like there's no tomorrow. And when anybody makes a noise, I wave the pedigrees and they go “Ehhh.” Like you wave the garlic or the cross at a vampire.
I've had a wonderful time for three years being the critic of capitalism, basically recouping for people all the insights accumulated by the numberless critics of capitalism that are as old as capitalism itself. Like every social system it had its critics – you could pretend it didn't but they're there. They wrote the articles and the books and they made the movements. Only in the weird imagination of American conservatives is there not a long tradition of anti-capitalist thinking, agitation, strikes, movements, parties, government. It's very rich.
Over the last six, eight months, I've noticed something. Am I still called to provide criticisms of capitalism? Yes. But something new has happened – call it the maturation of the critical movement here in the United States and the rest of the world. It's no longer enough. They want to know, OK, you're right, capitalism sucks -- for many of them that's a big step, I don't want to in any way minimize it. But they're saying to me, OK, we've read your stuff, now give us an alternative.
That's what I'm doing. I'm saying OK, fair question, I'm one of the people producing that question in your mind, I can't not offer an answer.
The book is a product of this, the Web site is a product of this. I appeared on the Charlie Rose show 10 days ago, I talked about Mondragon, because Americans listen better if you describe something that exists than if you describe something that could exist. Because that's where the most advanced thinking of people that have been caught up in this crisis, that's what they want to talk about. It's not necessarily that they agree with me, but they want to have a proposal to chew on. They want to hear how and why this is different from capitalism, and how and why this should do any better in dealing with any kind of social problem and then how and why should we believe that if it's better, that it could ever be actually achieved. We don't want pie in the sky.
That Web site is a tension of these parts—part criticism of capitalism, part argument for an alternative, and part lots and lots of concrete discussions of people doing that, whether they're forming a co-op in a laundry in Cleveland or food service in Massachusetts, or Mondragon, the big one. The Web site is going to be full of examples, first-person descriptions, case studies, not so much because any of them are the be-all and end-all but because the reality of people who look and sound like you, who are in this state where you might be surprised to find them (for example, South Carolina) makes it more real, more American. People are fascinated, when I start doing a little bit of the history of co-ops in the United States, it's a shock, Americans are so underdeveloped about their own history.
The book is the best case I can make for transforming the organization of enterprises from a top-down hierarchical capitalist model into a cooperative worker self-directed model. What does it mean, where does it come from, why is it the solution, all as if I was the lawyer you hired to make the case.