Capitalism Hits the Fan A Marxian View: A Response to Wolff

This morning I was tipped off by Perverse Egalitarianism (again) about a 40-minute video lecture. The lecture is given by Dr. Richard Wolf, of University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and is called “Capitalism Hits the Fan A Marxian View.” The google-video description reads: “Richard Wolff a professor of economics at UMass Amherst talks on the current “financial” crisis and capitialism in general. A form of socialism is presented as a possible alternative. This talk was presented by the Asociation for Economic and Social Analysis and the journal Rethinking Marxism.” For about the first half-hour of it I was impressed with his smart yet accessible overview of the last 100 years of Capitalism, leading up to the last 30 or so years of wage stagnation, over-production, and the replacement of wage increases with credit-lines. As the above description indicates, he offers “a form of socialism as a possible alternative.” This is where I became less impressed, and I’d like to say a little about why.

I found Wolff’s socialist alternative lacking. That’s not to say I didn’t like the way he positioned it contra both a conservative and liberal view about the crisis and the response to it. I thought that and the talk up to that point was brilliant. The bad taste his socialist alternative leaves in my mouth has two parts.

1) Wolff assumes a lot is going on around these worker-owned companies that make them possible. He and a lot of other people before him have done the work to re-think how a company (any company) can re-organize itself according to principles worker-ownership and management. This approach, more syndicalist than socialist, doesn’t address the way such companies interface with the wider society that depends on them nor the wider socio-economic conditions on which they themselves depends. That leads me to the second aspect of this bad taste.

2) His proposal does not address the capitalist mode of production so much as the relations of production, and not even those so much. In fact, what he’s talking about depends on the profit-motive and the productive arrangements that make it possible, if not necessary as in otherwise top-down ran Capitalism. This has two unpleasant blind-spots in-itself.

On the one hand, when a company depends on private profits for what it does, it is still at odds with government regulation, which cuts into profits. Wolff might argue that the enlightened working-class folks running their own company know that the regulations and taxes (he said nothing of taxes though) are for the workers’ own benefit, so they would not have a problem with them. What’s the point of making a profit then, particularly a profit destined to decline according to the very same processes Wolff elaborated earlier in his talk? The only conceivable point is that profit is never merely a means nor an end, but always both. In light of that, the self-consuming logic of Capital will explode these like all other relations of production, lest it simply be run into the ground.

On the other hand, “democratizing” the work-place in this syndicalist fashion does not over-come the essential privatization of an otherwise social(ist) movement. The workers depend upon their company as an engine of profit and not the State as the guarantor of social equity, which competes with the profitability of these worker-owned/managed companies. It’s only a partial socialization, both of losses and profits. While better than the current arrangements, the fundamental problem of the Capitalist mode of production is not properly addressed and will undo any relatively equitable relations of productions when they endanger profits, as it did in the mid-20th Century with trade unions and New Deal regulations.

In short, from Dr. Wolff’s talk, his “socialism” is not much better, if all that different, from what Marx critiqued in the Communist Manifesto as “petty-bourgeois socialism.”

4 thoughts on “Capitalism Hits the Fan A Marxian View: A Response to Wolff

  1. I’ve not watched the video so I apologize if this an obvious question – is he advocating workers control of capitalist-owned workplaces via unions, or is he advocating worker owned and managed workplaces? If the latter, if you’ll pardon a quibble, I don’t think that’s a syndicalist argument but a cooperativist one (or is it mutualist? I forget).
    take care,

  2. He touches on both, but lays emphasis on what apparently a bunch of silicon valley engineers did, which is quit their jobs and start their own worker-owned businesses. I understand syndicalists to advocate worker-owned/managed workplaces organized in relation to each other, either as privately as a single business (as in the silicon valley example) or collectively as a union. In the end, whether that’s the appropriate term or not is an unimportant matter, because I think my remarks about the problems with his suggestion still stand. I appreciate the clarification though.

  3. There is an interesting piece at about a gal who worked/co-managed a Paracon enterprise for a while. The reasons for the demise of the business include some of what you are talking about. Argentinian examples often prove the same point. Great blog.

  4. It is now 2011 and the job market and money for the middle class and I mean the middle class is drying up. The republicans took over the house and are attacking the social safety nets all over where republicans have won governorship. Everything he said in his video is coming to pass. Let us increase our workforce.- put poor children to work cleaning bathrooms. Why can’t you see this disparity? Why are their so many people listening to the likes of Limbaugh and Beck and Cudlow? History does not lie, people do. I am very disappointed in O’bama because I thought he could see this disparity and he only talks with a big stick. Maybe it is just too late! Big Money as Mr. Wolff explains so well has taken over. I quess it will take another French Revolution and the beheading process to stop it..

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