Book Review: Richard Wolff – ‘Occupy the Economy’

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a bookstore I have been long wanting to see – San Francisco’s City Lights Books.  Ever since being introduced to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the rest of the Beats in my first years of college, I’ve been interested in visiting the place where it all went down, so to speak.  About a month ago, I finally made it there and spent a considerable time (and money) looking through their substantial poetry section and their huge sociopolitical/philosophy sections.  I happened upon one of their most recent publications, Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism, by noted economist Richard Wolff, current Professor of Economics Emeritus at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Here’s the description of the book from the City Lights website:

Today’s economic crisis is capitalism’s worst since the Great Depression. Millions have lost their jobs, homes and healthcare while those who work watch their pensions, benefits and job security decline. As more and more are impacted by the crisis, the system continues to make the very wealthy even richer. In eye-opening interviews with prominent economist Richard Wolff, David Barsamian probes the root causes of the current economic crisis, its unjust social consequences and what can and should be done to turn things around.

While others blame corrupt bankers and unregulated speculators or the government or even the poor who borrowed, the authors show that the causes of the crisis run much deeper. They reach back to the 1970s when the capitalist system itself shifted, ending the century-old pattern of rising wages for U.S. workers and thereby enabling the top 1% to become ultra-rich at the expense of the 99%. Since then, economic injustice has become chronic and further corrupted politics. The Occupy movement, by articulating deep indignation with the whole system, mobilizes huge numbers who seek basic change. Occupy the Economy not only clarifies and analyzes the crisis in U.S. capitalism today, it also points toward solutions that can shape a far better future for all.

As far as the format of the book goes, it’s quite easy to read.  The entire text is literally a conversation between prolific journalist David Barsamian and Richard Wolff.  While the main thrust of the book is on the Occupy Movement and the growing conversation about the nature of our economic system and its apparent shortcomings, it covers a pretty substantial amount of recent United States economic history and some of the finer points of how we ended up in such a mess.  To give you an idea of the type of material the book contains, I’ll quote from it directly:

Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest Americans says, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Why isn’t there more discussion about class?

I think that’s part of the taboo of the last thirty years.  We had to believe in America that we don’t have classes.  I like to point out to my students that the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the two adversaries of the Cold War, had one thing in common.  Each side had its government and its intellectuals constantly telling the mass of people that they were a classless society.  The leaders of the Soviet Union said it from their perspective, and the leaders of the U.S. said it from theirs.  It wasn’t true there, and it wasn’t true here either.  We can’t discuss class.  It’s an explosive issue.  Again, it’s a little bit like sex: it’s one of those things not to be discussed openly even though everyone knows it’s a fact of life.

So I think it’s one of those terrible lapses of our political and civic culture.  When we can’t talk about something, all that that does is make that issue even bigger in people’s minds, even more powerful, even more influential, even to the point of becoming dangerous, because it’s this tabooed thing.  It’s like a child.  “You mustn’t ever go in that room” makes that room really interesting.  I think we will come to rue the day that we excluded genuine discussions of capitalism and class in the United States. (Wolff pp. 39-40)

As you can tell, the rhetoric is at a very readable level for the general public and doesn’t appear to be geared solely towards an academic audience.  This book is written to be accessible by a general audience, but it does demand a working understanding of elementary economic theory and recent United States history.

All in all, I found this book to be extremely interesting and well-put-together.  The conversation between Wolff and Barsamian is relatively comprehensive and organized effectively.  Wolff’s critique of United States Capitalism does seem incomplete in some points, however.  There are several points, like when Wolff talks about the functions of a market economy, where an interesting and previously unmentioned idea is introduced and then summed up far too quickly.  In this particular example, Wolff argues that a more-or-less capitalist market economy may not be the most fair or effective means by which to organize the distribution of wealth and goods and services.  While I generally consider myself a Marxist, I think the seemingly spontaneous nature by which the market economy organizes trade is one of its best attributes.  A huge amount of social planning would be necessary to organize a system as complex as the one that exists in the current American economy.  This fact is all but ignored in the text.

Also given little consideration is the details of the United States economy prior to 1970, where Wolff argues a huge shift took place.  The date provided in the text notes that wages were rising steadily from the beginning of the twentieth century until about 1970.  The reason for the stagnation is wages is multi-faceted, including the proliferation of labor-replacing technology, globalization, and a massive increase in borrowing by the middle class.  The question I found to be ignored was what exactly contributed to the rising standards of living that occurred in those seventy years before the major shift noted by Wolff.  More conversation about the early stages of this notable transition would make for a more well-rounded discussion.

But overall, these are small points of contention I found in an otherwise well-researched and well-organized text.  I would definitely recommend this book to those interested in the Occupy Movement as a continuing and growing entity as well as those interested in some sound critique of Capitalism.  Wolff’s text provides clear answers to nearly all the questions set forth by journalist David Barsamian and it makes for a really interesting and stimulating read.

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