Occupy Wall Street Ends Capitalism's Alibi
This protest pinpoints how dysfunctional our economic system is: we
must refashion it for human needs, not corporate aims
by Richard Wolff
OCCUPY WALL STREET has already weathered the usual early storms. The
kept media ignored the protest, but that failed to end it. The
partisans of inequality mocked it, but that failed to end it. The
police servants of the status quo over-reacted and that failed to end
it – indeed, it fueled the fire. And millions looking on said, "Wow!"
And now, ever more people are organising local, parallel
demonstrations – from Boston to San Francisco and many places between.
Let me urge the occupiers to ignore the usual carping that besets
powerful social movements in their earliest phases. Yes, you could be
better organised, your demands more focused, your priorities clearer.
All true, but in this moment, mostly irrelevant. Here is the key: if
we want a mass and deep-rooted social movement of the left to
re-emerge and transform the United States, we must welcome the many
different streams, needs, desires, goals, energies and enthusiasms
that inspire and sustain social movements. Now is the time to invite,
welcome and gather them, in all their profusion and confusion.
The next step – and we are not there yet – will be to fashion the
program and the organisation to realise it. It's fine to talk about
that now, to propose, debate and argue. But it is foolish and
self-defeating to compromise achieving inclusive growth – now within
our reach – for the sake of program and organisation. The history of
the US left is littered with such programs and organisations without a
mass movement behind them or at their core.
So permit me, in the spirit of honoring and contributing something to
this historic movement, to propose yet another dimension, another item
to add to your agenda for social change. To achieve the goals of this
renewed movement, we must finally change the organisation of
production that sustains and reproduces inequality and injustice. We
need to replace the failed structure of our corporate enterprises that
now deliver profits to so few, pollute the environment we all depend
on, and corrupt our political system.
We need to end stock markets and boards of directors. The capacity to
produce the goods and services we need should belong to everyone –
just like the air, water, healthcare, education and security on which
we likewise depend. We need to bring democracy to our enterprises. The
workers within and the communities around enterprises can and should
collectively shape how work is organised, what gets produced, and how
we make use of the fruits of our collective efforts.
If we believe democracy is the best way to govern our residential
communities, then it likewise deserves to govern our workplaces.
Democracy at work is a goal that can help build this movement.
We all know that moving in this direction will elicit the screams of
"socialism" from the usual predictable corners. The tired rhetoric
lives on long after the cold war that orchestrated it fades out of
memory. The audience for that rhetoric is fast fading, too. It is long
overdue in the US for us to have a genuine conversation and struggle
over our current economic system. Capitalism has gotten a free pass
for far too long.
We take pride in questioning, challenging, criticising and debating
our health, education, military, transportation and other basic social
institutions. We argue whether their current structures and
functioning serve our needs. We work our way to changing them so they
perform better. And so it should be.
Yet, for decades now, we have failed to similarly question, challenge,
criticise and debate our economic system: capitalism. Because a taboo
protected capitalism, cheerleading and celebrating it became
obligatory. Criticism and questions got banished as heresy, disloyalty
or worse. Behind the protective taboo, capitalism degenerated into the
ineffective, unequal, crisis-ridden social disaster we all now bear.
Capitalism is the problem – and the joblessness, homelessness,
insecurity, and austerity it now imposes everywhere are the costs we
bear. We have the people, the skills and the tools to produce the
goods and services needed for a just society to prosper. We just need
to reorganise our producing units differently, to go beyond a
capitalist economic system that no longer serves our needs.
Humanity learned to do without kings and emperors and slave masters.
We found our way to a democratic alternative, however partial and
unfinished the democratic project remains. We can now take the next
step to realise that democratic project. We can bring democracy to our
enterprises – by transforming them into cooperatives owned, operated
and governed by democratic assemblies composed of all who work in them
and all the residents of the communities who are interdependent with
Let me conclude by offering a slogan: "The US can do better than
corporate capitalism." Let that be an idea and a debate that this
renewed movement can engage. Doing so would give an immense gift to
the US and the world. It would break through the taboo, finally
subjecting capitalism to the critiques and debates it has evaded for
far too long – and at far too great a cost to all of us.
Richard D Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University
of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught economics from 1973 to
2008. He is currently a visiting professor in the graduate program in
international affairs of the New School University, New York City.
Richard also teaches classes regularly at the Brecht Forum in
Manhattan. His most recent book is Capitalism Hits the Fan.