CRITIC OF CAPITALISM Professor Richard Wolff
taught economics at UMass Amherst from 1973-2008.
The Cold War is long over (though it may not seem that way, these last few weeks), but to decry capitalism, the economic system that played such a major role in that international conflict, is still considered taboo.
That didn’t stop a collection of University of Southern Maine student groups from getting together to bring nationally known socialist economist Richard Wolff to Portland, where he will deliver a talk: “Capitalism Hit the Fan, So Now What? Economic Democracy and America’s Future.” (The event was supposed to take place this Wednesday evening; due to potentially hazardous travel conditions, organizers decided Tuesday afternoon to reschedule Wolff’s visit for late April. Stay tuned.)
At speaking events throughout the country, the Harvard-, Stanford-, and Yale-educated economist argues that capitalism, while it may be all we know, is worth examining, criticizing, and ultimately overthrowing.
The Phoenix spoke with Wolff about his philosophy and what he sees as viable alternatives to our broken system. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
What, in your mind, is the most glaring evidence that our current economic system is not working? I think the one I would pick is the growing inequality of wealth and income and the growing inequality of political power and cultural access that come from that. In other words, as the one percent becomes insanely — or obscenely — wealthy...the rest of the people disappear. I literally see students in my office with tears coming down their faces, as they explain that they can’t take out another 5-10 thousand dollars, they can’t turn to their parents, their parents feel bad about it. The absurdity of this... The future of the United States depends on the workers you produce. To make it harder and harder to go to college and university, this is shooting yourself in the foot. These are all signs of a society spinning out of control. And we live in a society that cultivates a blindness to all this.
What role you think US academic institutions have played in our understanding, or lack thereof, of the economic crisis; what role do you think they could play moving forward? There was a time, and I hope it comes again, when academics had the courage and independence to be a leading force in facing up to difficult realities, if not mobilizing people to deal with them. We’re not there right now. Particularly in my field of economics, the complicity of our profession with the status quo is overwhelming and very debilitating. The response of my discipline has been to retreat into an ever-more technical economics, focusing on details, minutia, basically looking the other way as a system unravels because there aren’t rewards for being the truthteller, for being the critic. You get more rewards for playing by the rules. I find that very tragic. There are of course exceptions — there are professors, there are students, there are even whole departments that are willing to face the problems our country faces. But we live in a country that has specialized in demonizing critics of our economic system.