It’s instructive listening to a born-again Socialist like Dr. Richard Wolff, Marxian economist and author of Capitalism Hits the Fan, which more or less tells you what he thinks of our present economic system. He had been delivering monthly “updates” at the Brecht Forum in New York, but now that venerable institution of the left community has shuttered its doors thanks to a dramatic spike in the greed of local landlords. A couple of years ago, the Forum was still in Manhattan, but had relocated after Hurricane Sandy. One self-identified employee claimed the landlord rescinded the Forum’s $5,000 a month rent and replaced it with a $30,000 a month rent. The Brechters promptly decamped for Brooklyn.
And this is just the kind of thing Dr. Wolff preaches about: the unjust power a few people wield over the many. This is at the very heart of his critique of capitalism: the means of production and distribution owned by a few—versus a system in which production and distribution were owned by the many. In his monthly lectures, which seem to have relocated to the New School, the good doctor delivers the truth with unerring simplicity, threading together all the hidden and not-so-hidden injustices of capitalism into a powerful bill of indictments of the capitalist model itself—all with the passion of a political firebrand. Wolff is a confirmed radical in society of apathetic conformists. He wants to talk about America’s great taboo topic, class struggle. Thanks to the Great Recession, the shameless bailouts, and the unrepentant thievery of Wall Street, Wolff now has an audience. Books like Tomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century have helped, although Wolff is nonplussed by Piketty’s thesis.
Tinkering at the Margins
What irritates him most is the underlying con of Piketty’s analysis. After piling up an Egyptian pyramid of data demonstrating capitalism’s proclivity to produce ever-greater inequalities, Piketty suggests the rather tame solution of a wealth tax. This, Wolff intones, is little more than was suggested by John Maynard Keynes decades ago, when he promoted greater government intervention to stabilize the economic crises that capitalism ineluctably visits on every society in which it is practiced. (All the more so in societies where the reigning ideology has morphed into a theology, such as ours.) The flaw in the balm applied by these well intentioned but timid architects of reform is that they resolve a symptom but not the system.
For Wolff, it is the system of capitalism that must be radically overthrown if we want to truly rectify the injustices of a construct that privileges elite capital with the majority of the surplus produced by workers, with the freedom to accrue wealth untaxed, and with the discretionary monies with which to buy a venal political class and ensure that the construct never changes. Piketty, like Keynes before him, would tinker at the edges of the system, a bland reformist content to administer a gentle reproof to a greed-consumed elite order.
Perhaps a few tepid reforms would be enacted after years of bitter struggle by an activated proletariat. An alarmed administration might reluctantly skim a sliver of the gains of elite capital and redistribute it to the indigent minions. But as with Keynesian economics, rollback would swiftly ensue. Because by simply taking a wrench to the engine without rebuilding it, one leaves in place the very cause of the original injustice—a capitalist class whose cupidity is not sated, a consumer class whose wallets grow vanishingly small while prices grow oppressively large, and the same cabal of influence peddlers whose swinish behavior brooks no ethic than cannot be reversed for pennies.
The Vitiated Masses
Wolff deploys graphic illustrations of the divide between the rights of the wealthy and the poor, between American democracy and justice. He cites an alarmingly large prison system that functions less as a rehabilitory institution and more as a low-wage labor pool for corporations. Even as crime declines, incarceration rates rise. Even as unemployment surges, providing plenty of inexpensive labor for capital, businesses would often rather enjoy the low-cost benefits of employing indentured slaves (aka prisoners) to handle less palatable industrial work, sometimes for as little as a quarter an hour. What a perverse incentive for incarceration, but what a clever and profitable scheme for unscrupulous multinationals. Just think of it. Corporations looking to stimulate a stagnant bottom line make lavish contributions to ruling parties, who in turn promise to expand the War on Drugs. In so doing, police find fragile minority communities where drugs are trafficked as perhaps the only reliable revenue stream. Find the “perps”, incarcerate them, strip them of their rights—especially the right to vote—and send them to the clinker. Presto, you’ve now ethnically cleansed your cities, denied them the franchise, and produced an insanely profitable business model to boot.
Naturally, it is largely less affluent minority communities that are targeted for arrest for fatuous “crimes” such as holding micro-doses of “contraband” such as marijuana. On a parallel track, upper-echelon white communities in financial industries are finding their far more harmful behavior decriminalized. Wall Street’s derivative trades, the lack of position limits, securitization, all march on, shredding the vellum skein of Dodd-Frank as they go. Since most fair-wage American jobs now reside in low-wage Asia, profits are up. Since the Federal Reserve inflates the financial sector with monthly cash injections, stocks are up. All good news for the decriminalized financial class—from which few if any of the perpetrators of the mortgage meltdown are behind bars.
But notice the consequence of this behavior. None of this new money created by fiat is being used to offset the hardships being endured by those who have lost their jobs and have seen their social supports dwindle. Thus it comes as no surprise that Americans are ransacking their 401Ks at record rates. Or that many millions have reached in desperation for the reverse mortgage trap, which exhausts family wealth and leaves despairing progeny with a debt burden rather than a helpful bequeath. No matter—you can work it off behind bars.
And still none but the few rise in protest. Are we simply too vitiated as a people to care? Too softened by creature comforts? Too bloated by indulgent meals and wearied by the endless entertainments of the distracted class? Drudgery by day, burlesque by night. Who has time to storm the Bastille? Maybe so. But why?
Dr. Wolff points to history. He points back to the days of the New Deal. He notes how, in the wake of FDR’s unprecedented activism at the behest of left-wing pressure groups, that one by one the elements of the American Left were isolated, demonized, and demolished. First, the Communists. Easily accomplished through the Cold War and its handmaiden, the McCarthy Era. Next up were the Socialists, whose unique faith was easily conflated with that of Communism. And finally, the workers. Trade unions were tarred with the same Communist brush, said to be harmful to growth and dramatically undermined. Private sector union membership is now below 7 percent.
Yet only by demanding, insisting, importuning, and discomfiting power, and then persisting in that behavior, is real change ever achieved. Wolff seems somewhat optimistic that a groundswell is coming; he sees large turnouts for his talks in places like Nebraska and Kansas City. He sees swelling frustration in the deflationary politics of the times. Perhaps he is onto something, is himself driving something. The forces arrayed against his ilk, as the facile MSM might paint him, are formidable, amoral, and monomaniacal in their pursuit of wealth. But Wolff often recites an apocryphal tale from the Bolshevik Revolution that illustrates a puissance far beyond that of any police state or surveillance apparatus. One that might outflank both.
Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky sit together in the Winter Palace in the aftermath of Red October, flush with the shock and optimism of their sudden triumph. As they converse, a comrade enters the room to tell them the state police records are on their way. They arrive, a pile of papers documenting the informants of the state. As they page through the stack, their faces darken. They are each astonished by the number of their comrades who were secret informants of the government. Quislings, traitors, and turncoats among their inner circle. They gaze at each other in disbelief. The room quiets. The mirthful mood of the day vanishes beneath the bleak recognition that their solidarity was naïve. Then Lenin leans back in his chair and smiles. Stalin and Trotsky frown at him—nothing is funny about deceit. But Lenin brightens and says, “Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter that the government had infiltrated our ranks. When the tide of history is upon you, resistance is futile.”
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.