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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 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.

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