Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Read Down Memory Lane

"Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens – Essays on the Global Economic Meltdown,  (2010-2014)” by Richard Wolff, 2016

This book certainly proves that blog posts and essays can become books.  Wolff is one of the few Marxist economics professors in the U.S. and for that we should be grateful.  However, as a professor he writes essays that are repetitive and seem to be aimed at freshman in college.  At this point, his book provides a helpful tracking of some of the issues involved in Obama’s corporate handling of the financial crisis that started in 2007.  Remember the ‘fiscal cliff?’ Or the “grand compromise’ with the Republicans?  The ‘debt commission?’ Or ‘government shutdowns’, ‘debt ceilings’ and attempts at ‘bipartisanship’?  Wolff is repeatedly inspired by the class analysis of Occupy Wall Street.  He also seems to be inspired by FDR and the history of the U.S. in the 1930s, constantly comparing it to the pro-Wall Street, neo-liberal response of Obama and the Democratic Party to a similar situation.  In a familiar litany, the banking industry, corporations and the rich – the 1% - were saved, while ‘Main Street’ was left behind.

Spain's Mondragan Corporation
Wolff’s main contribution is his advocacy, along with people like Stanley Aronowitz, of workers’ self management, which he calls ‘worker self-directed enterprises.’ (WSDE)  Mondragon in Spain is his shining example – a massive, democratically-run organization that avoids layoffs and high pay differentials and is involved in many different businesses, employing 85,000 people in 2010.  It is a combination of 100 cooperatives and WSDEs.  It survived the collapse of the Spanish economy after 2007 quite well.  He compares the bureaucratized ‘actually existing socialism’ of the USSR, Eastern and Central Europe, the PRC, Vietnam and Cuba to WSDE enterprises and points to their failures in democratizing the workplace, which he thinks is the real or only reason that led to their collapse.  He makes a good case for making workers’ self-management part of any ‘transitional program’ towards real socialism – which he says the USSR and the PRC never had.  Wolff thinks one reason that ‘really existing socialism’ failed was because the ‘standard’ definition of socialism only meant government ownership and control of production. 

In a way, Wolff is most closely associated with the views of the International Socialist Organization (“ISO”).  He now sees China as ‘capitalist.’  His brief descriptions of the problems of the socialist and communists movements is laughably vague ...perhaps intentionally so.  He preaches socialism over and over again with one prime transitional demand – workers’ cooperatives and little else.    

Wolff dances around whether socialized ownership of production and national / international planning should be part of a socialist program, or even a real emphasis on political democracy through work and geographic counsels. Instead he points to the 13.7 million U.S. citizens working in 11,400 employee stock ownership plan companies. (ESOP)  He insists that enough decentralized WSDEs will lead, in the right context of capitalist economic turbulence, to a peaceful transition to socialism.  This, of course, is dubious. 

As experience has shown in the U.S., cooperatives, ESOPs, communes, 'non-profits' and other businesses not run directly by capital can revert back to private ownership, can collapse or can ape capitalist businesses.  Which figures, because they are surrounded by a sea of capital. Socialism in one firm?  Not really.  If cooperatives proliferate, they ultimately will set one group of workers in a cooperative against another cooperative.  Since they are not part of a plan, ultimately they would have to be coordinated.  Cooperatives are certainly an improvement over the top-down, shareholder/owner profit model of the typical capitalist corporation however.  That is their progressive character. 

Here are some nuggets from Wolff’s essays:

  1. Unlike Monthly Review, Wolff has charts that show U.S. capitalist profits (perhaps not overall growth) rising from 1975 to 2007.  And profit is the name of the game.  In 2014 they were around 10% AFTER taxes.  This is the flip side of the ‘stagnation’ argument and one that undermines it. 
  2. Wolff has charts that show U.S. corporate taxes dropping since WWII.  Corporations paid the majority of taxes in 1943 – which was the last time they paid more.  In 2008 individuals paid 3.5 times in taxes what corporations paid.  In 2009 corporate taxes were 7% of the total.  Payroll and individual taxes accounted for nearly all of the rest.  Payroll taxes for working-class people even went up in 2013.  As Marx pointed out, taxes are a weapon of upward distribution - so the Tea-Party had it right!  They are administered by a capitalist state and voted on by a capitalist-dominated congress, not some neutral party. 
  3. Wolff takes down Keynesianism and our resident NYT Keynesian, Paul Krugman… the economist who promoted Clinton, the Un-Keynesian.  He calls Keynesianism “capitalism’s plan B.” 
  4. Wolff does come out clearly for socialized banking, due to the sector’s collapse world-wide. 
  5. He has an interesting article on Harvard students walking out of some Econ 101 basic class because it only promoted Freidmanite capitalism. 
  6. Wolff is irritated that Marxism is not allowed in the so-called ‘marketplace of ideas’ in the U.S., but says that due to the 2007 crash that is changing slowly.
  7. Wolff repeated lampoons the ‘circulation of capital’ as U.S. corporations and the rich don’t pay taxes, while recessions reduce individual and sales tax receipts.  The billionaires instead promote austerity by laying off government workers and not funding government unemployment or foreclosure programs.  This after crashing the economy and getting bailed out by the same government going into debt!  The prime buyers of government bonds – i,e, government debt – are these same people.  So when the government goes into debt because of lack of taxes, because of economic recession, they issue more bonds.  And these same scoundrels collect the interest!  As they say, coming and going, coming and going. 
  8. The ‘bailout’ of Greece was really a bailout of the European banks.
  9. Wolff coins the phrase ‘scapegoat economics.’  Think Greece, unemployed people or Latinos.  Anyone else you’d like to blame?
  10. A ‘market’ does not equal capitalism, as markets exist in many types of economies.
This book is a primer to the last 8 years if you need one.  But most of its arguments are by now very familiar and are NOT as the title shows, about the deepening of the present capitalist crisis in 2016.  There is no looking forward at all, except on the issue of WSDEs.

Another book by Wolff reviewed below:  Occupy the Economy.” Use search box, upper left.
And I bought it at Mayday Books
Red Frog
June 15, 2016

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