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Richard Wolff: Occupy the Economy


Occupy: New politics emerging

By Tapani Lausti

Richard Wolff in Conversation with David Barsamian, Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism. City Lights Books 2012.

Capitalist societies have come to a crossroads. Governments and ruling elites are getting nervous about the way more and more people are showing disgust at the current austerity measures. Here in Spain one gets the impression that the right-wing government has given free reign to the police to do whatever they like when cracking down on demonstrations. Videos of police violence offer a ludicrous contrast to ministerial claims that the police acted with admirable restraint during the recent demonstrations in Madrid.

Police violence has shocked people in Spain. But this is nothing compared to the shock which people have felt watching growing unemployment, people losing homes because of inability to pay mortgages and young people losing all future prospects. Thousands of Spanish youths are leaving the country. At the same time, Spanish politicians' speeches show no real understanding of what the crisis is all about. They have joined the lunatic austerity politics trumpeted from Brussels as a remedy to everything. The indignado s' cry “you don't represent us” is more and more poignant.

In this useful book about the crisis of capitalism and the Occupy movement Richard Wolff deals mainly with the United States but also analyses some aspects of the crisis in Europe. Wolff suspects that the reason the elites in the US wanted to see the Occupy movement smashed was that they saw a new understanding of capitalism spreading quickly. People realized how spectacularly huge the inequalities in society had become. This had started to provoke an explosion which the 1 percent had every reason to fear. Similarly in many European countries the elites are watching their populations with trepidation, even if some of them show complete incomprehenion of the mood among people. They believe that democracy lives inside parliamentary buildings, whereas more and more people outside are beginning to become aware of the necessity of some form of participatory society.

The Occupy and indignados movements may fluctuate in their energy but, as Wolff points out, there is good reason to be surprised how much social impact the Occupy movement has already had. Wolff thinks that in the US as well as in Europe the new anti-capitalist forces indicate that the we are at the early stages of a new political situation. At the same time, it is wise to be aware of the limits of the new possibilities. In the past capitalism has bounced back from many crises. Wolff says: “We won't know what the last struggle of capitalism will be until we're done with it, until it's over and we can look back and see it clearly.”

The task is, indeed, formidable. Even if economic growth can be stimulated, it is still the wrong kind of growth. The world economy needs to be reorganized to be able to feed all the starving people on the planet. Currently everything is decided on the basis of what makes money, not what is socially useful. Also, moving towards ecological sustainability would, according to Wolff, “require a massive political commitment and a massive amount of social planning. Only a mass movement committed to those will make it happen.”

One hopeful aspect of the new movements is the understanding of the need of economic democracy. People realize that there is no hope for the future as long as the economy is in the hands of a very small minority which can constantly add to its already spectacular wealth and simultaneously use its wealth to buy politicians and propagate their self-serving ideology with the help of the readily obliging corporate press.

This understanding is a huge leap forward from decades of ignorance about how capitalism works. Even in the US, the citadel of capitalism, more and more people are waking up from the ideologically forced notion that capitalism can deliver the goods and secure human freedom and happiness. Behind this smoke screen American capitalists have accumulated fortunes. Taxes of the rich have been cut whereas workers' wages have been lowered, more and more people have been fired and social benefits have been slashed. In the end, the workers could only make ends meet by living on credit — until the bubble burst.

The myth of the efficiency of capitalism is rapidly falling apart. Unemployment has reached astounding levels in many countries, there is a huge amount of industrial capacity unutilized and, as Wolff says, “vast amounts of wealth lost that these unemployed people could have produced with these tools and equipment. Then we are told the market system is efficient. Wow.”

To put it simply, the system does not work. Wolff concludes that it is time to “occupy the economy, challenge capitalism and to democratize the enterprises.” Around the world there are millions of people ready to explore actionable alternatives to the current crisis-ridden mess. The Occupy movement changed the political atmosphere in the US and the indignados have done the same in Spain.

The problem is that these movements have to operate with very little coverage by the mainstream media. This makes them often half-invisible. Wolff, indeed, emphasizes the importance of a movement-oriented media and an independent press. 

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