Occupy the Economy
Challenging Capitalism
Richard Wolff
City Lights Books, San Francisco, California (USA), 2012 (2012)
186 pages

For the last half-century, capitalism has been a taboo subject in the United States. Among politicians, journalists, and academics —and in public conversation generally— the word has been avoided or else exclusively praised in over-the-top prose. Professional economists have used words like "perfect competition" and "optimal allocation of resources" and "efficiency" to teach their students and assure one another how absolutely wonderful capitalism was for everyone. Politicians repeated, robot-style, that the "U.S. is the greatest country in the world" and that "capitalism is the greatest economic system in the world." Those few who have dared to raise questions or criticisms about capitalism have been either ignored or told to go live in North Korea, China oe Cuba as if that were the only alternative to pro-capitalism cheerleading.

Americans have criticized and debated their educational, medical, welfare, transportatioon, mass media, politicla, and many other institutions and systems. They have questioned and at least partly transformed such traditional institutions as racism, sexism, the heterosexual family and the state. They have even sometimes challenged this or that aspect of the economy such as prices, Federal Reserve actions, and so on, but almost never the particular economic system.

Questioning and criticizing capitalism have been taboo, treated by federal authorities, immigration officials, police, and most of the public alike as akin to treason. Fear-driven silence has substituted for the necessary, healthy criticism without which all institutions, systems, and traditions harden into dogmas, deteriorate into social rigidities, or worse. Protected from criticism and debate, capitalism in the United States could and has indulged all its darker impulses and tendencies. No public exposure, criticism and movement for change could arise or stand in its way as the system and its effects became ever more unequal, unjust, inefficient and oppressive. Long before the Occupy movement arose to reveal and oppose what U.S. capitalism had become, that capitalism had divided the 1 percent from the 99 percent.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 7-8)

The academic economics profession ought to have been most intimately involved in analyzing and debating a broken capitalist system whose deep crisis had confounded all its confident expectations. It has done nothing of the sort. Instead it proceeds as if —and indeed mostly still insists that nothing has happened to disturb its fifty-year celebration of capitalism's efficiency and growth. A few professors of economics (e.g., Paul Krugman) and business (e.g., Nouriel Roubini) have commented on the absurdity of that insistence. But most of them could get no further than to recycle Keynes' 1930s critiques of a depressed capitalism and his recommendations for deficit spending and monetary stimuli by government. And, of course, the few right-wing economists who have taken the crisis seriously, utilized it to push yet again for less government economic intervention as the panacea.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 9-10)

The amazing thing about the last thirty years is the degree to which there was a kind of collective self-delusion in the United States around the issue of borrowing. It's not rocket science to know that if your wages aren't going up and you keep borrowing to consume, you will soon reach a point where you cannot cover the interest and repayment costs of your debt.

By 2007 the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was no longer sustainable. People just couldn't make the payments anymore. The bubble began to burst. It's a crisis that really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped going up, a crisis that was postponed for a generation, for thirty years, by debt that could no longer be expanded. By 2007 an entire mass of American people were literally exhausted, exhausted physically by all the work; and exhausted psychologically because the family that had held people's together had been blown apart because of the destructive consequences of overworking had put on the family.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 17-18)

One of the reasons why today's crisis is so severe, long-lasting and defies the efforts of the US government to cope is because it isn't a typical business cycle. This is the culmination of a thirty-year postponement of what it means when 150 years of wage increases comes to an end.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, p. 18)

David Barsamian criticizes Wolff for failing to discuss the decline of the union movement as one of the causes of the current situation:

You're absolutely right. Your criticism is well taken. I think that my own relative neglect of that part of the story is itself a symptom of what has happened. The trade union movement in the US is now at the end of a fifty-year period of decline. Year after year the number of US workers who are represented by a union, who are in any meaningful sense union members has shrunk, despite all kinds of efforts by the union movement to change that situation.

Think of the statistics today. Seven percent of US workers in the private sector, which is our major sector, are in a union. Nintey-three percent of people working do not have the protection of a union contract or a union organization to make sure they get treated properly, to avoid arbitrary firings, and all the rest.

But the current attacks waged by governors in a number of states —Wisconsin being the most notorious— are focused on public-sector employees. So we not only have a weak trade union movement but one that is under focused assault by politically sustained, coordinated forces across many states. As a result, the prognosis for the trade union movement borders on dismal.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 34-35)

On class war:

I think that's part of the taboo of the last thirty years. We had to believe in America that we don't have classes. I like to point out to my students that the US and the Soviet Union, the two adversaries of the Cold War, had one thing in common. Each side had its government and its intellectuals consistently telling the mass of people that they were a classless society. The leaders of the Soviet Union said it from their perspective, and the leaders of the US said it from theirs. It wasn't true there, and it wasn't true here either. We can't discuss class. It's an explosive issue. Again, it's a little bit like sex: it's one of those things not to be discussed openly even though everyone knows it's a fact of life.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 39-40)

The US economy is full of signs that the middle has disappeared. For example, the stores that served the middle —Sears Roebuck and dozens of them like that— they're all gone or disappearing. There is no middle. You don't buy your clothes at Sears Roebuck. You buy them at discount places like Marshalls or TJ Maxx, where they sell stuff real cheap. Or even more, Target or Wal-Mart, the stores for the mass of the people who can't afford any more. Or you're at the other end. You shop in a lovely boutique, in a lovely part of town, and you pay five times what everybody else pays for more or less similar stuff but a different logo or label. It's an economy that's splitting into the haves and don't-haves, with the think-they-haves in the middle, and that's a shrinking part of our population.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, p. 41)

On economic democracy:

Things could be different. Imagine that from Monday through Thursday you come and do the job the way you always do, but on Friday you come to work, you don't do your usual job. You sit around all day in meetings with the other workers and you make decisions democratically, together. You decide what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits.

If that were part of our democracy things would have turned out very differently over the last thirty years. First, in the 1970s workers' wages would have continued to rise. There was no need to do otherwise, and workers would have decided together to continue to increase their standard of living. As a result, the borrowing frenzy and insurmountable credit card debt could have been avoide for tens of millions of people. Second, would those workers destroy their own jobs by moving production to other countries? Highly unlikely.

Would those workers employ dangerous technologies, ones that pollute the environment? I don't think so because they live there, their children, friends and neighbors all live there. They're not going to want, even if it makes a bit more money, to risk the health of themselves and their families in the way that a board of directors located many miles away might be and has been traditionally quite willing to do.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 48-49)

I don't shy away from saying that the single most developed tradition of critical thought dedicated to the study of capitalism was initiated by Karl Marx. His work was built upon that of many people who preceded him. It does not offer the only set of solutions to our problems; it has its own shortcomings and failures. But if you want to think critically about capitalism, sooner or later you are going to have to encounter the theoretical tradition of Marxism, because it is the most developed and draws from contributions made from virtually every country on Earth, from a thousand struggles against business and governments supporting capitalism. It's a repository, a rich resource that ought to be made use of by anyone who wants to have a balanced perspective when it comes to dealing with the real problems.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, p. 52)

The bailouts:

So the governments of Europe —from the big ones of France and Germany to the little, poor ones of Portugal and Greece— borrowed huge amounts of money to raise the cash to bail out the banks and the larger economic system. What they did in Europe is what they've done here: public government taking on massive new debt to issue what amounts to welfare for the capitalist system. The debt crisis of governments is a direct consequence, A, of the economic crisis brought on by private capitalism on a global scale and, B, by the ability of those banks caught up in that crisis to get the government to borrow the money to bail them and the system out.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, p. 58)

It's an amazing process. The government goes in and literally announces, "We're taking the toxic assets off the balance sheets of the banks." Let me translate that into English. The government relieves the bad investments made by capitalists. It's a handout. It's welfare. The only difference between that and the welfare that a struggling family receives is that more money was involved. And what do we say? We say nothing as a nation. We have been forced to believe that this is somehow necessary. And now all we're debating is how big the cuts are the rest of us should take to finance that hustle.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 76-77)

It's not a coincidence. The rich people and their corporations have been smart. They've used their wealth to do something. They know better than the rest of us that if you have a country with a small number of people that are super-rich and a mass of people that aren't, there's a risk when you have votes and democracy, at least politically, that the mass of people who are disadvantaged will use the political system to correct what the economic system is producing in the way of inequality. So the rich people figured out, "Uh-oh, we'd better make sure we control the political system so it can't be used to tap the wealth we've cornered into our hands." That's why our congressmen and congresswomen and our senators are dependent on money, because it makes sure they do the bidding of the 1 percent and not the bidding of the 99 percent.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 71-72)

On the possibility of redirecting money from defense to social policies if we managed to stop the wars abroad:

Unfortunately, the historical evidence, at least from recent history, runs the other way. When the Cold War came to an end with the implosion of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, there was much talk about a "peace dividend." It never happened. Could it have? Sure. Should there have been a decision to downscale our military to acknowledge that the world had no other military superpower? Of course. But like anything else, it would require a mass movement to force that to happen. There wasn't one, so it didn't happen. So I think Occupy folks have to face the fact that the only way that's going to happen is if they become the powerful social movement that didn't exist in the 1990s. We need that to happen today. The benefits to society would be enormous.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, p. 75)

So I think capitalism has very basic challenges. Let's remember, we are now in the second major collapse of capitalism in the past seventy-five years. The last one was the 1930s. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the official agency which monitors and declares recessions and so on, counts between the end of the Great Depression, 1941, and the beginning of this one, 2007, eleven econoic downturns. Our capitalist economy is a fundamentally unstable system and is now inflicting its second worst downturn in a century. This a level of instability of our economic system that is going to make a large number of people scratch their heads and say, A system as unstable as this, which keeps visiting upon us these kinds of crisis, is a system that ought to be questioned and challenged.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, p. 78)

On the crisis of European socialdemocracy:

In countries like Greece, Spain and elsewhere, socialist governments that often came to power saying, "We will never impose austerity on the working class because it's an outrage," got into office and then proceeded to impose the austerity they ran against. You have it, for example, in that iconic socialist dynasty, the Papanderou family, grandfather, father, and now son, Georgios, who eventually lost his position at the end of last year. The socialist party is committing political suicide. I don't think it will recover for decades, if ever, in a country like Greece which has a strong and militant socialist tradition.

The Socialist Party in Germany, which was once a major party, is also in serious difficulties. It's a sign of fundamental changes in the socio-economic system, because the old political meanings are not what they were. The old political loyalties are being destroyed. New political loyalties and new political parties are being established. For example, in several European countries new political organizations are emerging that call themselves anti-capitalist parties. That's a new development. Even the Socialists didn't dare say that. Anti-capitalist. But the new ones are in order to underscore that their programs are for a new system.

I think we're at the early stages in Europe of a new political situation, just as we are in the United States. They're a little bit further along, because they have more of a tradition and they didn't see the atrophy of their left-wing organizations over the last fifty years. Their trade unions are stronger than ours, they have existing and powerful socialist and communist parties in many countries. So they have more networks in place. We are starting more from scratch in this country. That gives them certain strengths, but also weaknesses, just like our having to start from scratch is a weakness, but that also gives us strength. And we'll see how this evolves.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 79-80)

Reflections about why American investors are taking their business abroad, apropos a quote from Ben Bernanke about the existence of "significant drags on the economy" in the USA:

Turns of phrase like "drag on he economy" offer a lovely way to avoid dealing with unpleasant realities. Corporations now look at the US as a "mature" economy —their term for an economy that isn't growing quickly, like a young one would. And if an economy isn't growing quickly, then it's more difficult for a capitalist to make a lot of money by investing there. Why build up capacity to service a US market isn't growing quickly? It makes no sense. So corporations aren't doing it. They're either deciding to invest elsewhere, where the economies are young and growing —Brazil, Russia, India, China and so on— or they're waiting until the conditions here are better.

What does that mean? Well, it means if your business isn't going to grow, then the only reason to invest would be with a flat-output situation where you can still make some money even if the market isn't growing. This means that if your wage costs come down, if your materials costs come down, in other words, if the economy of the US keeps being depressed, workers are out of work so long they accept lower and lower wages because they're better than no wages, well, then profits might slowly pick up again.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, p. 82)

On the mirage of political democracy:

Here's what I feel safe in saying. The bottom is the only place from which we can expect change to happen. If the bottom doesn't make it happen, it's not going to come. It was always a mirage to imagine that you could have a political democracy expressed in elections and not also have an economic democracy. It's really simple. If you allow an economic system in which 1 percent of the people have more than half the wealth and the other 99 percent have to share the other half, then the 1 percent are not going to be so stupid as to not realize that one of the ways you secure yourself is to control the political system. And they accomplish that with their money, because that's what they have in abundance. So they use a portion of their money to control the political system, to manipulate what the voter knows, to manipulate the candidates from which the voter chooses, to control all of that. They have therefore been able to make sure that the political process does not, cannot, will not even conceive of, let alone move in the direction of fundamentally altering the system that puts those 1 percent at the top. That's what anyone in the position of 1 percent rich, when the other 99 percent are struggling would do.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 84-85)

On the use of language by corporations to disguise the inherent inequality of the labor relations:

It's an old tradition. Business strategists long ago discovered that one way to substitute for increasing workers' wages, which is what they want and need, is to give workers grandiose titles. So bus drivers become transportation engineers, garbage collectors become refuse managers, and so on. And, yes, Wal-Mart, a pioneer in paying workers next to nothing, giving them few, if any, benefits, is also a leader in giving them nice titles. You are an associate, whatever that means. I'm reminded of my discovery years ago that certain US corporations, particularly banks, like to call an astonishing large number of middle managers "assistant vice presidents."

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 95-96)

On the importance of markets in the economy:

Markets have been major social mechanisms of distribution for two hundred to three hundred years. They existed before that, but they weren't the dominant way that communities and societies distributed most things. And let me be clear. Even in today's world, many goods and services are distributed in non-market ways. The best examples I have are all the goods and services produced inside households. Consider a typical Thanksgiving dinner. You've all had turkey made by mama and you've sat around and enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. And now we're done at the end of the meal, and Mama says to you, "Oh, darling, would you please clear the plates and take the garbage outside so we can enjoy the rest of the evening." And you, having just been taught a lot about markets, say, "Yes, Mama, of course. I will perform this service for everyone in the room, as long as each persone gives me a dollar." At that point your father reaches across the table and smacks you and begins a heavy lecture. "That's outrageous what you just did," Papa says, "because this is a family. We love each other, and we do things for each other out of affection, out of love, out of respect. It is outrageous for you to demand money for that." Wow. Let me translate into economic language what Papa just said. A market is what Papa does not have and does not want in the house. He wants goods and services produced by household members distributed according to criteria of love, respect, need and desire. Mama didn't charge family members for pieces of the turkey she bought, cleaned, cooked and served. You are not allowed to establish a market inside the house for the cleaning service you were asked to perform. The market is banned, papa explains, because a market would destroy the love amongst us, would be incompatible with the family relationships.

When I tell this story to students when I teach, I usually stop at this point to lean across the podium and say to my class, "Here's a thought. If a market is incompatible with love inside the household, maybe it is outside, too. Maybe it isn't an institution we want. To revere the market uncritically, as some holy or perfect institution, is to be dishonest about our own lives, to lack the courage Papa showed at the Thanksgiving dinner. We don't permit markets in many other distributions of goods and services besides the household. For example, societies have long held markets in sexual services to be immoral, intolerable, etc., and often banned them altogether."

Having said that, let me turn now to the larger society, where we do use markets. Markets are certainly one way of distributing goods and services. But they're not the only way, and they're not ethically, morally or economically all that desirable. Think of it this way. A market means human beings like you and me every day are put into the following situation. We enter a store, a factory, an office, and we try to do something that, even if we're unconscious of it, doesn't make it any less important in our lives. We are best served if we give up as little money as possible to get the best quality and/or greatest quantity as possible. The other side of this transaction has the same motivation in reverse. We basically find ourselves in an adversarial relationship with everyone we engage in market exchanges. When we can get a little more coffee in the cup, we try to. When we can get away with not paying for something, a lot of us do it. Not a few of us find these market relationships so unpleasant that we shy away from them, insist on violating their norms, or pretend they do not exist (or become unconscious of them). And we produce all kinds of inefficiencies, problems and injustices by market mechanisms of distributing. It has a lot of problems associated with it, number one.

Number two, a market is, if you think about it, a very inegalitarian way of distributing goods, because everything happens according to people's capacity to pay. So, for example, if there is a shortage of milk and I only have $10 in my pocket, I can offer up to $10 for the milk because I need it for my child, but standing next to me is another person who has $50 in his pocket, that person can offer more for the milk and will get it because he can pay more. A market distributes goods and services according to people's ability to pay. It does not inquire as to whether the people who have a greater ability to pay got it by working hard, by stealing it, by inheriting, or any other way. So it's important to remember that markets are a very particular way of distributing goods and services and not one that we ought to think of as that desirable.

Indeed, I can give you a concrete example of that. During World War II, it was felt in the US that we as a nation had a primary interest in coming out of what war as a winner rather than as a loser. In order to win that war, lots of resources were needed to sustain our Army, our Air Force, our Navy. We did not, therefore, want resources needed to pursue wat to be used instead by people who could afford to buy those resources because they had a lot of money. So how did the government handle that? Basically, it told rich people, "You have a lot of money, which normally in a market would allow you to get whatever you want and deny it to people with less money. We don't want that to happen, not because of concern for poor people but concern because we need those resources to win the war. But we also have another concern: if we allow some resources to be given to those who have the most buying power, the mass of people who then get denied those remaining resources may get very angry. And we can't afford a social division between those the market serves and those the market screws, because that division will make it harder to win the war."

So what did the government do? It superseded the market. It said, "Markets don't work in this situation." And it issued something called ration cards to Americans. If you wanted a quart of milk, if you wanted a pond of sugar, if you wanted a gallon of gas for your car, and if you wanted a whole lot of other things, you had to have more than just the money to pay for it. You also had to have a ration card, which was issued by the government to people not according to how much money they had but according to their needs as human beings. If you had a family with 10 children, you got a lot more ration cards than if you had a family with three children.

This wonderful examples illustrates that at a time of urgent national need we didn't want to rely on a market, we didn't allow the market, because the market gave us results that were considered socially unwanted, socially ineffective, dangerous for the survival of society. I would argue that that's always true; it's not just true in a war. A market distributes goods and services to those most able to pay. I don't think that's useful, I don't think that's necessary. I think that's fundamentally immoral. And I think most Americans would agree if they could see that that's what a market is.

Finally, capitalists and other advocates of markets argue that even if it isn't all that morally attractive to distribute goods according to people's ability to pay without regard for how they got that ability to pay or for their needs as fellow citizens, at least, they argue, it's efficient. It's a wonderfully efficient way to allocate resources; it keeps the economy humming. My answer to them is, hello, what planet do you live on? Here we are in 2012, in the fifth year of a fundamental economic crisis where this charming market system, which we are told is so efficient, has produced 20 to 25 million people out of work, 30 percent of our industrial capacity unutilized, sitting there rotting, and vast amounts of wealth lost that these unemployed people could have produced with those tools and equipment. Then we are told the market system is efficient? Wow.

If you're halfway there by understanding it's not ethical, I have news for you. It's not very efficient either. It is only maintained by those —and they are the minority— who benefit from the market. Those, again, are the richest amongst us, because in a market system the goods and services go to them and not to the rest of us. That they love markets, I understand. That the average American is loyal to markets, that's a testimony to generations of social engineering and PR done by that minority.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 119-124)

On the lessons learned from communism:

Perhaps the most important lesson is that the past experiments with socialism and communism, with their focus on planning rather than markets and on socialized property rather than private property, overlooked the radical transformation of the enterprise itself. Here's whre my point about the Soviet Union enters. They got rid of the private boads of directors, they got rid of the private shareholderes, they closed the stock market. But they did not turn over these enterprises to be run by the workers in them through institutions and mechanisms of democracy. What they did instead was dismiss the old, private boards of directors and they replaced them with state officials. So instead of fifteen people running the company who were selected by the shareholders, you had fifteen people who were selected by the government or by the Communist Party.

That was definitely a change with important social consequences. But it also left the mass of people inside each enterprise in a little-changed subordinate position, having to live with the top-down decisions made by state officials but being excluded from participating in those decisions in any organic, real way. That, to me, is a crucial part of getting beyond capitalism. If you leave the structure in place and only change the people at the top from privately elected boards of directors to publicly selected state officials, you've gotten rid of private capitalism, but you still have the same structure in the enterprise. I call that state capitalism, because it's state officials that have replaced the private boards of directors. I'm not saying that's a bad change to make, I'm not even saying that might not be an advance in certain ways. But it isn't what I understand socialism and communism to be. It isn't a break in the way I think a break has to be made.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 156-157)

The term "workers' council" comes directly from Italy where impoprtant efforts were made to realize such councils under the leadership of Antonio Gramsci. Examples can be found in many countries, including here in the United States, where genuine democracy takes over the operation of enterprises and of governments, too. We call them co-ops most of the time, like the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, for example. Stores, factories, craft shops where workers say, We don't want a boss, we don't want a corporation, we don't want a dividing line, a wall, between those who do the work and those who make the decisions about what, where and how to produce and what to do with the profits. We want, instead, a cooperative enterprise, a collective enterprise, a community enterprise. And they've done that. Coops have included people who are religious, because often religions support cooperative enterprises. Coops have also included people who are stalwarts of the Republican Party who think of all of coops as an ingenious entrepeneurial innovation. Co-ops can also be as diverse as the US itself. For example, on any given day at the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn you may find a Jamaican man in dread-locks laboring side by side with a co-worker who is a member of Brooklyn's orthodox Hasidic community.

Throughout the history of the United States and every other capitalist country the desire of workers to be their own bosses rather than work under bosses is deep and abiding and keeps resurfacing. In a way, the idea of realizing genuine democracy in our economy of the same sort we see at Occupy movement's general assemblies is the idea of making a serious effort for the first time in human history to generalize a new way of doing business in which the workers who do the work also make the decisions on the job.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 160-161)

On identity politics:

It's amazing. For fifty years in the US we've had single-issue movements or ones drawn fro sectors of the population who have spoken out against injustices experienced in their communities: African Americans, women, immigrants, people with sexual orientations different from the heterosexual norm, environmentalists, and others. Each of those movements sooner or later encountered the problem of capitalism and how it produced or sustained the problems they were seeking to overcome. However, with some exceptions, most hesitated to confront capitalism or make going beyond it a necessary part of their agendas for change. That seems too hard or too divisive to risk.

Occupy is a dramatic break from that. From the start, the movement has addressed the deplorable greed and injustice waged against the 99 percent by the capitalist system and the resulting displacement and suffering it has brought. Occupy represents the beginning of a historic shift in the United States. Smy feeling is, "Wow, you are beginning to bring together very diverse interests into a real unity, you are beginning to give everyone on the left a sense of what is possible, you give everyone a sense on how powerful we can be, how much we can change, how daring we can be and still have all those social impacts. Wow!" As the movement transitions from tent encampments to organizing in new and creative ways, it moves its occupation deeper and deeper into national awareness through outreach, through direct democracy, through civil disobedience, through the creation of a movement-oriented media and an independent press.

(Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy, pp. 174-175)

Obviously, we have seen none of those. Rather, the movement just petered out in the winter of 2011-2012. But why?.

Entertainment Factor 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 5/10