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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 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.

SJ: When you are a critic of capitalism, people say “Well, what do you want then? Communism didn't work!”

RW: And the book doesn't shy away from being critical of socialism.

SJ: But in your last book, Occupy the Economy, you made the point that communism didn't actually change the way the job worked—it replaced the capitalist boss with the party boss, but didn't make the workplace more democratic.

RW: I develop that idea more in the new book.

I don't want to disrespect the tradition. What socialism and communism did, if you count from the end of Marx's life, 1860s, '70s, to the present, a good 150 years, socialism and communism brought ideas, a worker should be what we celebrate in this society, notions of real democracy, real egalitarianism, and internationalized them on a scale we've never seen before. There are Marxist and socialist, communist parties, clubs, newspapers, in every country on the face of the earth. It spread a little bit like what happened to the Muslim religion, to Christianity. It must speak to something in people to have that kind of spread.

I want to be respectful—you did a lot, what you did and what you said spoke to people. But that's not an argument that, the conditions of the 21st century being what they are, you don't need a radical questioning and rethinking of your strategy. It says you changed society, socialized property, bravo to you. You substituted a rational attempt at planning for the irrationality of the market, good for you. But you didn't transform the inner structure of the production process.

If I had more time I would say the same thing is true for the family. But I can't fight every battle.

In conventional socialism, China, Soviet Union, Cuba, they didn't transform the workplace, for all kinds of reasons which I understand. But I do come later, I do look back, and I think that's where they went wrong. And the argument of the book is because they didn't change it, they bred the kinds of angers, resentments, envies, tensions, that in the end destroyed what they had created. It isn't that you should've gone further because it would've been nice. It's that you didn't go further and that undermined what you did.

SJ: Corey Robin and some other folks have been taking on libertarians with this argument, saying "If you're so concerned about liberty, how come you aren't concerned with liberty on the job?" Connor Kilpatrickargued that the place where most Americans face tyranny isn't the TSA, it's the boss.

RW: The overwhelming majority of people who lost their jobs in the great crisis of the last five years were fired by a private capitalist employer. That's the man or woman who told you not to come back Monday morning because you weren't needed anymore. The overwhelming majority of the people who were turned out of their home because of foreclosure had that foreclosure procedure initiated by a private capitalist banker or other lender. In a reasonable inference, you'd think that the unemployed, the foreclosed, would be angry at the person who did it to them.

But they aren't, because of an ideological argument which teaches people to leap over the proximate cause of their misery and find an ultimate cause, which is the government. So you lose your job and you're furious at your congressperson, or the president. “I'm going to vote for Romney because I lost my job and Obama was president when I lost my job.” What the link is between Obama and your firing is, you couldn't articulate. Your ideology never went that far. You just know that the allowable thing to hate in our culture is the government.

 
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