Richard Wolff’s latest book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, makes provocative observations about our economic woes and proposes thoughtful solutions. His writing is concise and clear so even if you do not agree with his perspective on the world you come away with a clear understanding not only of what he thinks, but why your thinking doesn’t align with his.
You will read about such ideas only rarely in the news pages of mainstream magazines and newspapers – and then typically in a tone that is, at best, jaundiced. Wolff gets even less attention from radio, television and cable programs, with the lone exception of Bill Moyers who has been shunted off to a time slot guaranteed to minimize his audience.
Why the fear of an aging professor? Almost certainly it is because Wolff is widely regarded as America’s leading Marxist economist.
Every serious student of economics studies Marx, just as they study Aristotle, Plato, Smith, Bentham, Ricardo, Pareto, Marshall, Keynes, and Friedman. And yet the mere mention of Marx prompts revulsion because our society is infused with assumptions that support capitalism, not thoughtfully but thoughtlessly.
The genius of Marx, which even his fierce but informed critics recognize, is that not only did he perceptively analyze the problems of his time, but he also pointed to fundamental principles that are informing our time. It important to understand Marxian perspective to grasp what is going on on the world today even if you disagree with Marxian analysis.
Wolff, like me, is a critic of the Chicago School, which has so thoroughly dominated American economic thought in the four decades since I studied there that its teachings have become secular dogma.
In his new book, Wolff says that capitalism has gone off course, serving the needs of capitalists at the expense of everyone else. This problem has become so obvious that Wolff doesn’t need to work that hard to make his fundamental point. For several decades now we have seen those at the top of global capitalism become incredibly wealthy – far beyond the wildest imaginings of just a half-century ago – while wages in the United States and much of the rest of the modern world have stagnated for nearly all workers.
What Wolff is selling as a solution of ownership of enterprises by the workers. He calls these Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises or WSDEs.
Take notice of that apostrophe. It’s important. He is not promoting the kind of faux capitalism of the masses represented by 401(k) plans and mass stock option plans. Wolff is talking about actual control.
Control, of course, involves both opportunity and responsibility. It also involves risk. Would we do better overall if workers make decisions about the direction of a company, or at least play a role in those decisions, rather than CEOs who are hired hands? And make no mistake, that is exactly what most CEOs are – hired help. They generally are not significant others of the companies that employ them and they frequently sell the stock issued to them either directly or through options. This makes them economically different from the owners who have their entire fortune tied up in a business they personally run.
Wolff, born in 1942, taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has emeritus status. He is now a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School. Wolff earned his doctoral degree at Yale in 1966 after earlier studies at Harvard (BA cum laude 1963) and Stanford (AM 1964). He also earned a masters in history at Yale in 1966.
I look forward to provocative – and thoughtful – questions about Wolff’s proposals in his modestly titled new book (not the indefinite article in the subtitle) — Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.
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