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Richard D. Wolff: Can We Remake Our Workplaces To Be More Democratic?

Economist Richard D. Wolff is known as a critic of capitalism, but lately he's been arguing for an alternative: cooperatives.
 
 
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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."

 
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