Wolff on Wall Street

by Seth Weiss

Richard Wolff, an economics professor who taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is now at The New School, spoke recently at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. [1] Wolff, one of today’s most prominent Marxist thinkers, argued that “there is a reality behind the concerns we all have” about “grotesque inequality,” “the attack on the natural environment,” and “the fundamental corruption of our political system,” and stressed that “the most important issue” for him is that “we have the courage to name and change the reality behind all of that … the economic system called capitalism.”

In drawing attention to our economic system rather than just the manifold horrors and inequities it generates, Wolff appears to be well in advance of the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, which sparked demonstrations in more than 1500 cities across the globe, under the banner “From Tahrir Square to Times Square,” on October 15th. [2] Indeed, much of the movement continues to focus on issues like corporate power and greed, corruption in the financial sector, and the obscene salaries and bonuses of bankers and hedge fund mangers instead of the system which engenders such phenomena. The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” for instance, displays a strikingly singular focus on corporate power and malfeasance, offering up a veritable laundry list of grievances attributed to “corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality.” [3]

Wolff argued as well at the teach-in for “the idea of going beyond capitalism,” saying “the United States can do better than capitalism.” Here, too, Wolff seems to be ahead of much of the movement. Many, like Adbusters, the Canadian-based activist publication that initiated the call for the first Wall Street demonstration, focus instead on measures aimed at wealth redistribution; Adbusters is now rallying for a 1% tax on financial transactions and currency trades, dubbed the “Robin Hood tax,” to fund social programs and environmental initiatives.  [4] Others, like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who celebrate the “experiment with new democratic practices” in the encampments and argue the “protest movement could, and perhaps must, transform into a genuine, democratic constituent process,” make a fetish of political forms of decision-making. [5]

But what exactly does Wolff mean by “going beyond capitalism”? At Zuccotti Park, renamed Liberty Plaza by protestors, he asked the crowd to “imagine a new program,” one called “democracy at work.” It would entail, as Wolff explained:

The workers who go to work everyday … they ought to be the ones who make the decisions [about] what to produce, how to produce, and what to do with the profits. Then, we would have nothing like the inequality we have today … no jobs going out of the country … and the money would make politics serve us, not the rich who are the shareholders and the boards of directors.

There is nothing particularly novel in what Wolff is advocating here, and there has been a renewal of interest on the Left in worker-run co-operatives and worker self-management for some time now. Naomi Klein, for instance, makes a similar case, advancing the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce,” in her 2004 film, “The Take,” on Argentina’s recovered factories. The problem, however, is that worker-run co-operatives, by themselves, are simply not an alternative to capitalism or a path to socialism.

Throughout Capital, Marx treats capitalists and workers as the personifications or bearers of production relations. If we leave capitalist production relations intact, but change the bearers of these relations — in this instance, by replacing corporate owners and managers with workers — we will not have fundamentally changed anything. The issue is not who is nominally in control of the workplace, but whether or not the production process itself has mastery over us. Marx understood what he called socialism or communism — he used the terms interchangeably — as entailing a complete break with value production. This means, as Marx outlined in the Critique of the Gotha Program, that from the inception of the new society labor will be directly social, the labor employed in the production of products will no longer take the form of an objective quality possessed by them, and the products of our own hands will no longer have control over us.

It is important to be clear that worker self-management and co-operative enterprises do not in themselves entail an abrogation of value production and that — as long as value production remains untouched — they will inevitably reproduce all of the defects of the present society. This is because value production, as a result of ceaseless competition between producers, is characterized by a constant compulsion towards maximum production at minimum cost. As such, efforts within a co-operative to, say, create better working conditions or to produce in ways that are less harmful to the environment would threaten a loss of competitiveness and bankruptcy.

When asked about the “legacy of communism” at his teach-in at the Wall Street encampment, Wolff stressed that there are lessons to be learned from the Soviet experience. However, he ignores what is surely one of the key lessons of that experience: the failure of socialism in one country. If the nation-state proved to be a framework too circumscribed to find immunity from the competitive pressures of the world market, then surely this would be all the more so in the case of an individual co-operative or a federation of co-operatives operating within capitalism.

Wolff is hardly the first to present, as an alternative to capitalism, measures that would leave intact value production — the very instrumentality of domination in our society. What’s more, an effort to substitute change in the political, legal, and cultural spheres for real and meaningful change in socio-economic relations has become a hallmark of contemporary radical thought, as the Left continues to shrink from responsibility for working out what would be necessary to transcend value production. The new movements, from Wall Street to Egypt and from Athens to Madrid, face the prospect of reformism and other false steps as long as the Left remains unable to develop and project a viable and liberatory alternative to capitalism.

[1] A video recording of Wolff’s talk is available at his website, https://web.archive.org/web/20111107131640/https://www.rdwolff.com/content/occupy-wall-street-richard-wolff-speaks.
[2] See Bill Weinberg’s “Occupy Wall Street protests go global,” http://ww4report.com/node/10430.
[3] “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” http://occupywallst.org/forum/first-official-release-from-occupy-wall-street/. The declaration was issued by the New York City General Assembly, the loose network that has emerged as the leadership of the protests in the city. The authors note as well, “We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.” Incidentally, the declaration’s seemingly populist gestures — it even takes a cue from the American Declaration of Independence in its exposition — cannot conceal its middle-class authorship, which in the same document decries animal cruelty while saying nothing about an unemployment rate that has no parallel since the Great Depression.
[4] “October 29 – #Robinhood Global March,” https://web.archive.org/web/20111108233227/https://www.adbusters.org/blogs/adbusters-blog/robinhood.html. The “Robin Hood tax” appears to be a variation in glossy packaging on the “Tobin tax,” although the latter, named after the Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin, is aimed at managing volatility in exchange-rates rather than wealth redistribution. Marion Wrobel’s study of the Swedish experiment in the 1980s with financial transaction taxes shows dismal results. According to Wrobel, there was an 85% reduction in the volume of bond trading during the first week of the tax, and the situation persisted with more than 50% of all Swedish trading having moved to London by 1990. What’s more, “As taxable trading volumes fell, so did revenues from capital gains taxes, almost entirely offsetting revenues from the equity transactions tax.” Marion Wrobel, Financial Transaction Taxes: The International Environment and Lessons for Canada, http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp419-e.htm.
The reality that all those who continue to prescribe redistributive measures refuse to face is that the economic basis for welfare state policies dried up with the crises of the 1970s, which capital never recovered from and which set the stage for the most recent crisis. Significant efforts to redistribute wealth from capital accumulation to the masses would threaten economic growth, portending new and deeper crises. See Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession, especially chapter 4, for discussion of capital’s inability to recover from the crises of the 1970s.
[5] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “The Fight for ‘Real Democracy’ at the Heart of Occupy Wall Street,” http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136399/michael-hardt-and-antonio-negri/the-fight-for-real-democracy-at-the-heart-of-occupy-wall-street?page=show. A similar fetishism of organizational forms prevails among activists involved in the Wall Street protests. Occupy Wall Street organizers are said to distinguish between “verticals” and “horizontals.” The former is a decidedly pejorative designation marked by top-down and vanguardist forms of organization; the latter is a positive designation characterized by non-hierarchal and directly-democratic forms of organization. To be sure, the project of the vanguard party and its seizure of state power has proven to be a dead end. However, “verticals” and “horizontals” are not complete opposites: both place politics in command, endeavoring to substitute political, legal, and cultural change for real change in production relations. The problem is that a non-hierarchal assembly can no more overcome capital’s law of value and crisis tendency by consensus than a central committee can by dictate.

1 Comment

  1. How exactly are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri “mak[ing] a fetish of political forms of decision-making”?

    I’m neither “vertical” nor “horizontal,” but someone who recognizes that the emancipation of the working class is a… mass-bureaucratic and mass-institutional process.

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