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Richard Wolff And Capitalism’s Troubled Waters At The Left Coast Forum

Richard Wolff on the Laura Flanders Show 2015

The Left Forum is a meeting of progressive thinkers, writers and advocates of various types that has convened regularly in and around New York City since the 1960s. On the first weekend of November, Left Coast Forum was launched, its maiden voyage held at LA Trade Tech in Los Angeles. Despite some chilly weather, turnout was strong, surely due to the nexus of a profound national political upheaval, and the presentation of some of the country’s leading progressive voices.

The three day event featured more than fifty panels, lectures and discussion groups on a wide variety of topics ranging from worker-owner cooperatives to academic discussions of what socialist alternatives really mean. The convention had as its title and theme, State of the Struggle, which described the weekend’s chief mission: to provide a context for progressive thinkers from a wide variety of orientations and backgrounds to share ideas, unite forces, and provide a support mechanism for organization and future activism.

Malibu Arts Journal sent its humble correspondent to the keynote speech that capped Friday’s activities and kicked off the weekend, delivered by noted economist and author, Richard Wolff. His Curriculum Vitae includes a BA in History from Harvard, an MA in History from Yale, as well as an MA in Economics from Stanford and a PhD in Economics from Yale. He’s formerly a Yale University professor in economics, as well as a Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. 

Wolff espouses an evolution of Marxist economic theory that focuses on reforming the distribution of surplus labor’s assets, surplus labor defined here as the amount of labor expended beyond what the individual requires for his or her own personal sustenance. Wolff sees, as Marx does, the distribution of surplus labor as being at the heart of class distinction. Wolff believes this essential pillar of Marxist economic theory to hold true today, but that contemporary contexts have presented some corollaries that must be addressed in order for worker-controlled economic entities to compete with and replace traditional capitalist economic structures. He also posits that capitalism has as an integral component of its very nature an inescapable eventuality of self-destruction that is beginning to present intimations of collapse.

“Capitalism is in deep trouble,” Wolff said early on in his address. “Perhaps deeper than it’s ever been before. Every day people are realizing it’s not this or that detail, it’s not this or that problem. It’s a system that is not working for the vast majority of people anymore.”

Wolff’s observations and analysis are modulated through the combined lenses of his dually accredited expertise in both history and economics. In identifying fissures in what has been the consistent stronghold of capitalism in this country since its inception, Wolff cites the downfall of other systems in history whose fatal flaws eventually became a cancer that overtook them from within. “The system is organizing its own passing. That’s how slavery went, that’s how feudalism went, and that’s probably how capitalism will go too…the numbers of those who love it are shrinking, those who hate it are growing, and those who are doubtful about it and increasingly so is the biggest group of all.” The surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign and Trump prevailing on the Republican side were both expressions of a rising tide of economic dissatisfaction.

“Both major parties were defeated in this past presidential election,” Wolff said, to one of many of his speech’s offerings of spontaneous applause. He pointed out that ours was not the world’s only rejection of traditional politics, referencing a global people’s movement that is expressing itself in a variety of ways. The most notable example of course was Brexit. He additionally called attention to Portugal’s coalition government, whose power is shared three ways by the Green Party, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. “If you did not know that, it’s because of the way the media in this society works. Which is itself a reflection of a system that is so fragile, it can’t afford to let you know half of the things that citizenship ought to put first and foremost in your minds.” 

He then went on to describe the money, media and politics collusion that supports and exacerbates this western iteration of capitalism in a way that every audience member instinctively understood, but whose clear concise articulation was at once infuriating and motivational. That capitalism remains on a headlong rush toward greater and greater inequality in both quantity and degree is in part a function of this unsavory alliance of media and politics.

Wolff advocates a wholesale reorganization of the United States’ system of resource ownership, citing the growth of co-op workplaces across the country as microcosmic examples of the benefits worker-owned enterprises offer. He described in anecdotal terms how many companies across a broad range of business enterprises in his immediate New York neighborhood have adopted a worker-owned co-op model, and then presented statistics that reflected a still small but growing rejection in America of traditional top-down enterprises in favor of more cooperative management.

The Left Coast Forum provides a place for a range of advocacy groups to meet together and discern how cross-association can be mutually beneficial. With administration approval ratings at an all-time low and victories in New Jersey and Virginia races for non-traditional candidates, there is fresh vulnerability in incumbents whose agenda can be effectively linked to old guard politics. Wolff understands that, and his enthusiastic, newly enervated audience understood that as well. See you there next year, lefty.

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