It’s refreshing to hear a respected economist like Richard Wolff challenge American capitalism as an inherently flawed system [“Capitalism and Its Discontents,” interview by David Barsamian, February 2012]. Yet, like most economists, Wolff misses entirely the most important ingredient of what he calls “that wonderful growth period from 1820 to 1970.”
Aside from the fact that not everyone (Native Americans in particular) would call this growth period “wonderful,” such economic expansion would not have been possible without an entire continent of untapped resources to exploit. The wealth Wolff cites was stolen from the land itself, which in large part now lies bleeding at our feet. Environmental catastrophes are increasing at pace with poverty, scourges emanating from the same source.
This is the modern capitalist’s bleak legacy: “prosperity” derived from an anything-goes feeding frenzy at the trough of the planet itself. After World War II the victorious capitalists who controlled the world’s industrialized militaries continued to plunder other nations, bleeding entire countries. But, as we see now in Washington, DC, the treasures of the aggressors were bled as well. Combine such avarice with a willingness of corporations and their bought-and-paid-for elected officials to weaken market rules for the benefit of a few, and the result is not only more disparity between rich and poor but looming fascism.
Richard Wolff notes that, from 1820 to 1970, Americans enjoyed a standard of living that increased with each generation. He also notes that, since the 1970s, the stagnation of wages has been masked by easy access to credit. Meanwhile advertising has created a craving for nonessential material goods.
Yet his proposal to fix our economy is to re-create the ever-increasing standard of living Americans once enjoyed. I would argue that this ever-increasing standard was unprecedented and is unlikely ever to return. Americans need to develop a healthier relationship to nonessential material goods. If we understood that adequate food, clothing, and shelter are enough, along with sufficient leisure time to pursue a few satisfying interests, we might be much more content.
If Richard Wolff would cease his academic pontificating and start his own small business, he would see that the problems with our economy have much to do with the inability or unwillingness of workers to take ownership of the business results. With workers in other parts of the world willing to work harder, longer, and faster — and for less compensation — than the typical American, we are in a real fix.
As a business owner, I believe the only way forward is to create teams of people at all levels of a company who can take deep personal responsibility for setting high-level goals and achieving world-class business results. If Wolff would turn his attention to this task, he might be able to help move us forward.
I am a teacher in Michigan, raised during a time when union was not a dirty word. I find it disheartening as I grow older to see rabid attacks on what I thought a good and ethical country was supposed to be. So I was delighted to read David Barsamian’s interview with Richard Wolff. It inspired me to make copies to give to like-minded people; contact the author; assign the interview as an extra-credit reading project to my students; sign up for a subscription to The Sun; and write this letter at 7:15 AM on a Saturday morning, because I had to.
Tucked into the mostly great interview with Richard Wolff was one paragraph that raised concern. Wolff said that we need stay-at-home parents to hold families together. Given our society’s assumption that mothers should be the primary caregivers, the implicit suggestion is that women should do this unpaid labor.
Convincing research has found that both mothers and fathers need to be truly involved in raising the children. This country needs paid, gender-neutral parental leave, so that moms and dads alike can take time to care for an infant. We need workplace policies that allow parents flexibility. We need free, universal early-childhood care and education, so that parents can feel confident about returning to work, either part time or full time. And in order to make that child care high quality, providers need good pay and benefits.
Richard Wolff proposes that women entering the workforce after World War II are partially to blame for the current recession. I would say the opposite is true: having women in the workforce has resulted in more economic exchanges that boost the economy — more people buying a cup of coffee on the way to work, for example. He also claims that families are less happy now than families were then, based on the fact that “sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families.” Really? Sitcoms are fiction. Does he think that all the families in the 1960s were as happy as the families in the sitcoms? A more accurate assessment is that many of those sitcoms served as propaganda for the idea that Dad going to work and Mom staying at home is the only way to achieve happiness.
By blaming the current recession on women — and immigrants — Wolff seems to be saying that white men are entitled to hold all the good-paying jobs in our society, while the rest of us are supposed to be happy doing the unpaid and low-paying jobs on which society depends. How about a partnership model where both genders share equally in the paid and unpaid labor?
I found much food for thought in the Richard Wolff interview, but we can’t overlook the fact that capitalism — and its supposed opposite, socialism — can never be made to “work right.” It depends at its core on a set of unsustainable (not to mention morally and spiritually bankrupt) assumptions: (1) Humans are entitled to own, exploit, manipulate, and use up the resources of the planet to support our narrowly defined and shortsighted ideas of prosperity and comfort. (2) Neither the resources themselves nor the places from which they are extracted have any value in and of themselves, but only whatever value we might or might not assign them. (3) The “necessity” of providing jobs, and thus more opportunities to consume, is more important than the purity of the land, air, and water, the integrity of ecosystems around the world, and the well-being of wild animals and plants and even indigenous humans.
Ever-increasing consumption drives both capitalist and socialist economies. Our biggest challenge is to begin to move toward a more reciprocal and joyful way of living on the earth, interacting healthily with all its living systems.
Richard Wolff responds:
I am gratified to learn that my interview generated interest and letters. In response to questions about the environment: there are multilayered contradictions between capitalism as an economic system and a respectful, sustainable relationship with nature. That topic deserves additional interviews with people better informed than I am. My conversation with David Barsamian focused on the economic crises capitalism has generated through its own peculiar mechanisms and operations. My aim is to help break through a modern blindness to capitalism’s costs and limits and to revive and update brilliant critical literature about capitalism such as that produced in the nineteenth century by Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill and by twentieth-century American writers such as Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, and Paul Sweezy.
Regarding women’s role in U.S. economic development since the 1970s: I did not “blame” women (or immigrants) for the current recession nor advocate stay-at-home mothers. I did show how millions of women entering into paid labor (because of the women’s-liberation movement and family financial needs), plus new immigration from Latin America, contributed to wage stagnation after the 1970s. Readers interested in how capitalism’s crisis is related to households, family, gender, and intimate relationships might be interested in podcasts devoted to those topics that I produce with Dr. Harriet Fraad, a psychotherapist, which are freely available at www.rdwolff.com.
Technological innovations in recent centuries have promised to allow human beings to produce and distribute the goods and services we need with much less drudgery and labor. But capitalism and its profit-driven competition have never realized that promise. U.S. workers do more annual hours of paid labor on average now than at any previous time in the nation’s history and more than is done in any other advanced, industrialized country. Likewise advances in human self-understanding, from psychology to medicine to ecology, have taught us to recognize the crucial importance of our relationships with nature, with one another, and with the process of realizing our human potentials. To build those relationships takes time and support, but the capitalist system demands so much of our labor and time that too little of either is left for everything else. Capitalism likewise suffuses the culture with the imperatives of consumption that distract us from cultivating those relationships that we so badly need.
The basic point here — as in the interview — is to interrogate and criticize our capitalist system just as we do other systems. Capitalism has flaws and limits with costly implications for our lives, especially now. They deserve to be discussed and debated.
I was going through some old papers and found an original copy of The Sun’s first issue [January 1974]. The cover featured a cartoon drawing of a wild-eyed man shooting up with a large hypodermic needle imprinted with the words “Alaska Oil.” The caption was a line from a song by Leonard Cohen: “We are locked in our suffering and our pleasure is the seal.”
The article inside, titled “The Price Was Never Right,” was about the impact of “big oil” on politics and how our combined consumer habits drove the great machine. The issue bore witness to the many ways we humans have plundered, polluted, and destroyed our one and only planet in order to survive and “flourish.”
The saddest part is that everything in that first issue from thirty-eight years ago is still true today.