Professor Richard D. Wolff: “Let’s Talk About Socialism.”

by Jerry Alatalo

“The worship of Mammon instead of God is a characteristic of socialism as well as capitalism… Socialism in no longer a Utopia or a dream: it is an objective threat, and a warning to Christians to show them unmistakably that they have not fulfilled the word of Christ.”

– NICHOLAS BERDYAEV (1874-1948) Russian religious philosopher

Book4Alphabet Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst where he taught economics from 1973 through 2008. He was born in 1942, is 73 years old, and married to Harriet Fraad, a practicing psychotherapist. They have two children.

Mr. Wolff could be described as a heterodox economist, or coming from a school of thought outside of “mainstream economics”, or going beyond neoclassical, orthodox and traditional economic theory. On a personal note, Mr. Wolff comes across as very enthusiastic and full of energy during his talks, something which deserves appreciation for its rarity among economists along with the fact that he’s 73 years old. For this one can describe Mr. Wolff as the epitome of a true teacher, one who is genuinely excited to share his/her knowledge of the subject to students.

Some notable heterodox economists include (Wikipedia, heterodox economics):

Karl Marx

Richard D. Wolff

Thorstein Veblen

Alfred S. Eichner

Piero Sraffa

Joan Violet Robinson

Michael Kalecki

Frederic S. Lee

Ha-Joon Chang

Some heterodox economics schools:

American Institutional School

Austrian economics

Binary economics

Bioeconomics

Complexity economics

Ecological economics

Evolutionary economics

Georgism

Green economics

Gesellian (Silvio Gesell)

Innovation economics

Insitutional economics

Islamic economics

Marxian economics

Mutualism

Neuroeconomics

Participatory economics

Post-Keynesian economics

Post scarcity

Socialist economics

Sraffian economics

Technocracy

Thermoeconomics

Given recent years of global economic downturn, many people are coming to the point where they are thinking about alternatives to capitalism. Professor Wolff reminds his audience that those who think there is only one kind of socialism are experiencing a fantasy, as there are many socialist-related economic theories. However, despite the lack of courses in university economics departments, socialism is one of the alternatives receiving more attention. Evidence of this is found in Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ announcement he is running for President of the United States in 2016, and that he is widely known as holding a political philosophy aligned with socialist economics.

Richard Wolff studied history and economics at Harvard, Yale and Stanford, but, because of what he calls “childishness”, in none of his economics courses was he required to read anything written by Karl Marx. During his “Monthly Economic Update”, he tells his audience that saying “let’s talk about socialism” most likely results in a chilling feeling and effect to run through the room, because any American who mentions that (until now) taboo word most likely will become perceived in an extremely negative light or accused of “treason, disloyalty, apostasy” or many other terms that are simply equating with “bad”.

After becoming an economics professor, he was somewhat surprised to find his students viewed the terms communist, socialist, anarchist, and terrorist as synonyms – different words meaning the same thing. As mentioned, recent years of international economic downturn have many people looking at alternative economic schools to find if there’s not one which if implemented will result in better outcomes. As Richard Wolff says at the end of his talk, it’s “better late than never”.

Up until the 41:45 mark of his 1-hour 30-minute talk Mr. Wolff comments on recent events, then the talk focuses on the topic “As Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens, Thoughts of Socialism Return Again”. Some of the current events he comments on include:

Billionaire hedge fund owner gives $150 million to the world’s 2nd richest university in the world – Harvard. The billionaire’s deduction of $150 million from his income will cost the U.S. government $60-70 million in lost revenue.

The New York Times published an article about the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main trade group, and its opposition to a law requiring older rail cars become retrofitted to prevent oil spills in case of derailment. The Institute feels the law is “too costly, yield few safety benefits”, days before a U.S. train went off the tracks and several people lost their lives.

U.S. is spending the lowest amount on maintaining roads, rails, bridges and other infrastructure in 25 years.

Two of eighteen banks decided to go through a trial instead of negotiate a settlement/enter a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for financial crimes – one from Japan and Royal Bank of Scotland. The woman judge in those two cases issued a 361-page decision against the banks which said, “The magnitude of falsity, conservatively measured, is enormous”.

On the 1,000’s from North Africa and the Middle East who’ve perished trying to cross the Mediterranean, Mr. Wolff said: “If you had an economic system, in our case capitalism, that systematically organizes extreme disparities between wealth in one part of the world than another, here comes a real shocker: people are going to want to leave the part of the world that the system drowns in poverty and move to the part that isn’t affected like that. This has been going on roughly 10,000 years; it shouldn’t come as a big shock. If you don’t want migration, if you don’t want unsafe migration, murderous migration, deadly loss of life, then don’t organize and don’t accept an economic system that produces the disparities which are the beginning of all of this anyway. An honest approach would begin to say let’s ask why this happens. Why would people rip up their lives, leave their homes, their families, their communities, their languages, and go to a whole other part of the world at enormous cost, at enormous risk to life and limb to themselves, their children, their spouses? Why would people do that if they weren’t desperate? Nine times out of ten it’s about economic disparity”.

On recent elections, the conservative victory in Britain is the “bad news” and the New Democratic Party’s victory in Alberta, Canada is the “good news”. Mr. Wolff describes “us against them” tactics used by David Cameron in Britain and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as the “scapegoat economy” – in Britain “them” meaning immigrants and the poor, in Wisconsin “them” meaning teachers, firefighters, police, etc. in the public sector.

Recent Gallup polls show that 63% of Americans for 30 years (1984-2015) have believed that distribution of wealth has been unfair, while during the same thirty years members of Congress have taken steps to make inequality worse.

Then, at around the 41:45 mark of the talk, Richard Wolff gives an amazing historical account on major world transformational events of political economy. “We are a strange country in more ways than one, but one of the strangest things about us is the weird taboo we have lived under for the last half century. What’s the taboo?We can’t talk about socialism. We can’t talk about socialism; we can’t talk about socialism and compare it to capitalism – we can’t do it. It’s too scary. No, that’s out”.

In America during the 1930’s, socialists and communists were “OK”, similar to societies across Europe today. In America during that time it was hard to demonize socialists at the family picnic when your “Aunt Mary was one”. That changed in the 1940’s when demonization of communists routed them out, converting them from militant leftists to “agents of a foreign power”, then socialists: “Socialists are just like communists, they just spell it differently. It’s all the same. They all carry bombs in their left back pockets, they’re hiding underneath your bed, and they mean you – and your puppy – lots of harm. So you should really watch out for them, and keep away”.

Mr. Wolff then goes on to share the history of change in political economy beginning with feudalism. Perhaps this writer is too easily impressed, but, the outstanding part of this talk by Richard Wolff  – about great socioeconomic changes through history, and the little known details – is brilliant.

****

(Thank you to RichardDWolff at YouTube)

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6 thoughts on “Professor Richard D. Wolff: “Let’s Talk About Socialism.”

  1. What does one say about such a statement. So much going on. First a condemnation of socialism that includes a condemnation of capitalism. But threatening Christians, some of whom have so perverted Christianity that it is unrecognizable as having anything to do with the messages of Christ, prince of peace. What is also of interest is the shame, shame, shame it puts on Christians. A religion based on fear and condemnations, on constant shaming and blaming is no religion at all. A friend recently commented that she did not understand why her adult children left the Church. Well, the shaming and blaming is certainly one of the major reasons. The hypocrisy is another. I have a lot of FB friends who promote atheism and condemn Christianity with constant posts, which I find offensive. Stooping to the level of the non-Christians Christians is not helpful either. There is much in the message of Christ that is useful to live by. Unfortunately, it is not what is emphasized by commentary like this statement. To be humble is one thing. To be like Dicken’s Uriah Heep is hypocrisy. To constantly shame and blame people is destructive. The great religions of the world all have some version of the Golden Rule. They share basic premises. Emphasizing shared visions is a much more powerful way to bring about peace than paranoia, shame and blame. Some believe that there is only one god, the god of the Israelites who is historically also the God of Christianity. Consider the history and the worship in the Old Testament of the Golden Calf at the time of the emergence of One God. Consider then the contemporary Golden Calf, which is not gold but bronze and is not a calf but a bull that resides in Wall Street. This image is a much more useful metaphor for the state of our world than using labels such as socialism and capitalism, as the Occupy Movement well understood. It is also much more useful than shaming and blaming and condemnations out of hand. Although the quotation is not contemporary, the attitude that Christianity is threatened and the accompanying paranoia is, by socialism and capitalism and by Islamophobia, a convenient scapegoat. Who are the worse barbarians, those who cut food stamps to a point where they take food out of the mouths of babes, children, and the elderly, or whose who behead people? I am not in favor of either, but both are barbaric. (Note this response is to the quotation, not to the economist Richard D. Wolff, whose article follows the quotation.)

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    1. Rise Up Times,
      To be honest with you, I know nothing about Nicholas Berdyaev but used his words because they were in George Seldes’ “The Great Thoughts” (1985). Looking up Wikipedia – Nikolai Berdyaev page, it seems he was held in high esteem by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Vladimir Putin requires Russia’s regional leaders to read one of Berdyaev’s books about inequality. He apparently came from an aristocratic family, and at age fourteen he was reading Hegel, Kant, and Schopenhauer (heavy duty philosophy), so Berdyaev’s books must be at least interesting. Berdyaev’s quotes are from “The End of Our Times” (1933 translation). Berdyaev was heavily involved in politics/religion of Russia, so his statements were understandably highly charged, and might best be seen from the context of 1933 Russia. Mr. Wolff’s talk explains Berdyaev’s message when he wrote it.
      Thanks,
      Jerry

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  2. I have just watched an interesting Swedish movie that distinguishes “socialism” – where capital is socialized – and “economic democracy” – where workers own the business and control production and enter into a rental contract with capitalists for capital. Under capitalism, capitalists enter into a rental contract with workers for labor. Economic democracy reverses this. Capitalists are paid a fee for the use of their money but workers maintain control of production.

    I think it’s an interesting concept. I plan to review the film later this week.

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    1. JoAnn,
      Yes, plus a lot of energy and seems like the “cool” teacher. Too bad the talk ended where it did, as he was going somewhere after talking about Lenin rolling in his grave over Stalin’s stopping at state capitalism without, appaarently, trying to accomplish Lenin’s goals. Having never read Marx, Lenin or Stalin, if Mr. Wolff had another hour at that point, just a guess, but, that Lenin’s goal was worker ownership. In that sense the talk was like those movies with the strange endings, where you and whoever is watching it with you think and say at the same time, “is that it?” 🙂
      Thanks,
      Jerry

      Liked by 1 person

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