Richard D Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a visiting professor in the graduate programme in international affairs of the New School University, New York City. Richard also teaches classes regularly at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan. His most recent book is Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (2009). A full archive of Richard’s work, including videos and podcasts, can be found on his site
This protest pinpoints how dysfunctional our economic system is: we must refashion it for human needs, not corporate aims
Occupy Wall Street has already weathered the usual early storms. The kept media ignored the protest, but that failed to end it. The partisans of inequality mocked it, but that failed to end it. The police servants of the status quo over-reacted and that failed to end it – indeed, it fueled the fire. And millions looking on said, “Wow!” And now, ever more people are organising local, parallel demonstrations – from Boston to San Francisco and many places between.
Let me urge the occupiers to ignore the usual carping that besets powerful social movements in their earliest phases. Yes, you could be better organised, your demands more focused, your priorities clearer. All true, but in this moment, mostly irrelevant. Here is the key: if we want a mass and deep-rooted social movement of the left to re-emerge and transform the United States, we must welcome the many different streams, needs, desires, goals, energies and enthusiasms that inspire and sustain social movements. Now is the time to invite, welcome and gather them, in all their profusion and confusion.
The next step – and we are not there yet – will be to fashion the program and the organisation to realise it. It’s fine to talk about that now, to propose, debate and argue. But it is foolish and self-defeating to compromise achieving inclusive growth – now within our reach – for the sake of program and organisation. The history of the US left is littered with such programs and organisations without a mass movement behind them or at their core.
So permit me, in the spirit of honoring and contributing something to this historic movement, to propose yet another dimension, another item to add to your agenda for social change. To achieve the goals of this renewed movement, we must finally change the organisation of production that sustains and reproduces inequality and injustice. We need to replace the failed structure of our corporate enterprises that now deliver profits to so few, pollute the environment we all depend on, and corrupt our political system.
We need to end stock markets and boards of directors. The capacity to produce the goods and services we need should belong to everyone – just like the air, water, healthcare, education and security on which we likewise depend. We need to bring democracy to our enterprises. The workers within and the communities around enterprises can and should collectively shape how work is organised, what gets produced, and how we make use of the fruits of our collective efforts.
If we believe democracy is the best way to govern our residential communities, then it likewise deserves to govern our workplaces. Democracy at work is a goal that can help build this movement.
We all know that moving in this direction will elicit the screams of “socialism” from the usual predictable corners. The tired rhetoric lives on long after the cold war that orchestrated it fades out of memory. The audience for that rhetoric is fast fading, too. It is long overdue in the US for us to have a genuine conversation and struggle over our current economic system. Capitalism has gotten a free pass for far too long.
We take pride in questioning, challenging, criticising and debating our health, education, military, transportation and other basic social institutions. We argue whether their current structures and functioning serve our needs. We work our way to changing them so they perform better. And so it should be.
Yet, for decades now, we have failed to similarly question, challenge, criticise and debate our economic system: capitalism. Because a taboo protected capitalism, cheerleading and celebrating it became obligatory. Criticism and questions got banished as heresy, disloyalty or worse. Behind the protective taboo, capitalism degenerated into the ineffective, unequal, crisis-ridden social disaster we all now bear.
Capitalism is the problem – and the joblessness, homelessness, insecurity, and austerity it now imposes everywhere are the costs we bear. We have the people, the skills and the tools to produce the goods and services needed for a just society to prosper. We just need to reorganise our producing units differently, to go beyond a capitalist economic system that no longer serves our needs.
Humanity learned to do without kings and emperors and slave masters. We found our way to a democratic alternative, however partial and unfinished the democratic project remains. We can now take the next step to realise that democratic project. We can bring democracy to our enterprises – by transforming them into cooperatives owned, operated and governed by democratic assemblies composed of all who work in them and all the residents of the communities who are interdependent with them.
Let me conclude by offering a slogan: “The US can do better than corporate capitalism.” Let that be an idea and a debate that this renewed movement can engage. Doing so would give an immense gift to the US and the world. It would break through the taboo, finally subjecting capitalism to the critiques and debates it has evaded for far too long – and at far too great a cost to all of us.
• Richard Wolff is participating in a day-long teach-in at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, New York on Tuesday 4 October. This article is based on remarks he will be addressing there at 6pm local time