[Analysis of the Moyers and Company interview of Dr. Richard Wolff airing 22/2/13
All quotes from the show are in italics]
Things just get more and more interesting. Today I had the pleasure of watching the show Moyers and Company on PBS during one of my many late night working sprees. I was surprised to find the doyen of left-wing media interviewing an economist from the ideological wilderness, at least when compared to most economists who are blessed with the status if media talking head. Richard Wolff is a graduate of Harvard, Stanford and Yale and currently teaches at the New School University in New York and at the Sorbonne in Paris. This is the sort of pedigree that produces your Larry Summers or your Alan Greenspan’s; loyal officers in the command of capitalist industry and the powers that be in their thrall. Not so Dr. Wolff. He is a proud critic of the capitalist institutions that the people of the US, or rather the proletariat, have come to depend on and all but worship. He made it known to Mr. Moyers that he makes special effort to go beyond his classical economics education, the realm of Smith and Keynes et al, and into the much maligned and feared realm of Marxist critiques of the traditional economic theories of capitalist orthodoxy.
He describes himself as a Marxian economist in the tradition of Etienne Balibar and other continental Marxist philosopher/theorists. He is a proponent of what he refers to as “worker self-directed enterprises”, a form of democratic economic worker organization that aims to defuse the authority from within a business or place of work back to the workers so that they may have a real and empowering stake in the mode of production and the allocation of excess capital. Dr. Wolff sees such a pursuit as a step in the direction of larger scale socio-economic reform that can in time facilitate “democratiz[ing] education”.1
Moyers knew he was dealing with a figure of immense energy and expressiveness and he kept his questions simple but to the point. The focus was mainly on the assumptions made about the American capitalist system and the benefits and drawbacks inherent to the system. Dr. Wolff discussed the impact of the Roosevelt New Deal policies on the modern perception of government action in the market system. Roosevelt struck what was then a grand bargain with a segment of the corporate class and capitalist barons of industry that allowed for the creation of the modern welfare state that preserved a semblance of order and comfort in a market that had gone haywire mostly on account of capitalist abuse (or I suppose proper use) of market mechanisms. Dr. Wolff made clear his belief that the robust minority of socialist, anarchist and communist parties and movements in the early 20th century pushed the greater civil society towards demanding just such a bargain that Roosevelt ended up making. This collaboration ended with the end of the boom caused by war spending during the global conflict of 1939-1945 as the newly coalescing middle classes separated from the proletariat roots of reform and gained a foothold in the rising market state bolstered by the funding of the welfare state. Dr. Wolff said “After the war the history of the US was the history of the dismantling of the communist and socialist parties and the unions.” This process, according to the good Doctor, continues to this day and has reached full expression in the populist hatred of organized labor and the welfare state itself. Such antagonism appears as a reactionary fear of losing the promise of “The American Dream”.
Moyers pressed the issue and asked some pointed questions probing this thesis. Would the American proletariat be perpetually stuck in this mode of reinforcing through belief and coerced participation their own exploitation by the forces behind market mechanisms? The story so far was verging close to fatalism. But Dr. Wolff was far from fatalistic. He confirmed that indeed “[Americans] thought that the American dream got better and better and got more available[and] They can’t quite believe it’s not there anymore”, but this was not to be taken as an excuse for perpetual pessimism. Just because the American proletariat had a longer way to fall did not mean that they would never reach rock bottom, a point where even the placated American worker would find his situation unbearable. Dr. Wolff says that what is needed to achieve the American Dream i.e. credit, debt, grueling work and an education that most people will not be able to pay-off until they have their first grandchild, is becoming ever more and more impossible. Dr. Wolff explains that this realization that the American dream that the proletariat was promised in exchange for their fealty to the capitalist system no longer really exists anymore and this realization
“[…] produces a kind of stasis, a kind of shock […] and then a boiling over.”
It is this “boiling over” that Dr. Wolff sees as the true reason for optimism in the face of a nihilistic capitalist system. Perhaps then the American proletariat can begin to see their future beyond this dream that has become a nightmare for so many and forge a new promise that can be sustained and passed from one generation to the next.
Moyers ended the interview on this positive note and I could not help but feeling a bit disappointed. The interview had lasted the better part of an hour but I really did want to hear more from a classically trained economist who nonetheless subscribed to Marxist theory and social democratic principles. It is rare enough to find such a point of view expressed in public media discourse. Marxism is still taboo in the capitalist wonderland (or rather dystopia) that is the United States and to see it talked about in an unbiased manner by a man who is both a critic and a proponent of the theories involved was refreshing indeed. Dr. Wolff explained that within the realm of business (a discipline he insists is entirely separate than the pursuit of pure economics)
“if you criticize capitalism then you do not understand it.” 2
Wolff puts the lie to this notion with this interview and I do hope that he will have chance to make this clear to a wider audience in the future.
- Democracy Realized, Wolff, Richard, retrieved from http://rdwolff.com/content/democracy-realized
- All quotes in italics from Interview with Dr. Richard Wolff,