Today’s economic crisis is capitalism’s worst since the Great Depression. As more and more people lose their jobs, benefits, and even their homes, the rich keep getting richer. Why has the government bailed out big banks, insurance companies and large corporations while millions of Americans work harder just to get by? Occupy the Economy (City Lights Publishers, 2012) is a hot-button primer on the taboo subject impacting most Americans today: the failure of capitalism. In eye-opening interviews with prominent economist Richard Wolff, David Barsamian probes the root cause of the current economic crisis, its unjust social consequences and what we can and should do to turn things around. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction.
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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 or Cuba as if that were the only alternative to pro-capitalism cheerleading.
Americans have criticized and debated their educational, medical, welfare, transportation, mass media, political, 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 U.S. 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.
The importance of the Occupy movement was and is positioning its challenge to capitalism front and center among its concerns and passions. No oppositional mass movement of the last fifty years—one drawing broadly inclusive participation—has been similarly daring in going beyond single-issue focus to make economic injustice for the 99 percent and the ruling economic system central, defining issues. Despite the power of pro-capitalism ideology, Occupy has been able to contest it in amazingly profound ways in an amazingly short time and for an amazing number of Americans.
Of course Occupy is a first step. Nothing of comparably broad scope and with such transformative social objectives has ever moved forward in a straight line. It’s rather two steps forward, one step backward. However a major barrier has been broken, a major line crossed, and a new stage of U.S. politics has begun. The issue of our economic system and whether it is adequate to our needs as a people has now been returned to the center of national discussion, criticism, and debate.
The political, mass media, and academic establishments react predictably. They can not acknowledge the historic significance of what the Occupy movement says and does; that would require admitting the need to debate precisely those issues they had effectively banned from acceptable public discourse. So the politicians repress. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg claimed that he forcibly removed Occupy from Zuccotti Park for reasons of cleanliness. Bloomberg, it should be remembered, has presided for many years over one of the filthiest subway systems in the industrial world, one of the dirtiest public garbage systems, and a snow removal system that inspires only our leading comics. The mass media did their usual bit: ignoring Occupy as long as possible, massively misreporting when Occupy was hot news, largely cheering or glossing the removal of Occupy encampments, and then resuming the basic practice of ignoring the ongoing developments of Occupy and related events and activities.
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 the 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.
Questioning the system and debating basic system change has remained—for government, mainstream media and most professors—something beyond the pale. They see no need to end their 50-year repression or marginalization of such questions and debates. For them, the basic organizations of production and distribution of commodities, like the property and power structures that sustain them, do not deserve criticism. Yet the pressure and mass constituency for a real challenge to that repression had been building across the crisis and emerged with public power in the Occupy movement in late 2011.
The interviews gathered in this book further contest that repression and further develop that challenge. As a broad array of questions are raised and discussed, one theme becomes ever clearer. The failure of government regulation, the growing inequalities of income and wealth, the roll-back on New Deal reforms, the parallel impositions of mass austerity programs by European and U.S. governments: these and many more aspects of the crisis that hit in 2007 are shown to result from how the capitalist system works and not only from this or that particular historical event or economic actor.
Across the pages that follow, what emerges is the central importance of how capitalism very particularly organizes production: masses of working people generate corporate profits that others take and use. Tiny boards of directors, selected by and responsible to tiny groups of major shareholders, gather and control corporate profits, thereby shaping and dominating society. That tiny minority (boards and major shareholders) of those associated with and dependent upon corporations make all the basic decisions—how, what, and where to produce and what to do with the profits. The vast majority of workers within and residents surrounding those capitalist corporations must live with the results of corporate decisions. Yet they are systematically excluded from participating in making those decisions. Nothing more glaringly contradicts democracy than how capitalism organizes the corporate enterprises where working people produce the goods and services without which modern life for everyone would be impossible.
On the one hand, criticism and debate around the adequacy of U.S. capitalism in relation to real alternatives have been repressed in the United States and beyond. On the other hand, the evidence this book considers shows that we need that criticism and debate now more than ever. The interviews therefore do not shy away from posing the logical and reasonable questions flowing from the topics covered: Does capitalism serve the interests of most people? Can we do better than capitalism?
Nor do the interviews hesitate to suggest some logical answers to questions such as: It is possible to democratize the economy? And is it possible to advance society beyond capitalism?
Key steps in building a social movement in that direction are the psychological as well as ideological breakthroughs to activism being achieved by the Occupy movement. A next step entails working through the ideas, concepts, principles, and values needed to empower, mobilize, grow, and unify the emerging activist generation. Occupy the Economy seeks to contribute to that next step.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism by Richard Wolff in conversation with David Barsamian, published by City Lights Publishers, 2012.
Richard D. Wolff is Professor Emeritus of Economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Visiting Professor at the New School University. Author of Capitalism Hits the Fan, he’s been a guest on NPR, Glenn Beck Show, and Democracy Now!
David Barsamian is founder and director of Alternative Radio and author of Targeting Iran. He is best known for his many books of interviews, including What We Say Goes with Noam Chomsky.