These days, Richard Wolff is feeling pretty glad he stuck around teaching this long. Now in his 70s and lecturing at the New School University and having become, over the course of his nearly 50-year-long professorial career, one of America’s most prominent Marxist economists, Wolff is used to being fringe. That’s no longer a word that can apply to him, or to his ideas. Over the summer, inequality experts Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk launched a conversation on this site when they posed the theory that capitalism is at the core of the many crises gripping our world today. To Wolff, that’s not news. But it is new to him to see the same ideas he has taught for decades being met not with scorn or skepticism, but with genuine interest.
In 2011, the same year that Occupy Wall Street injected dissatisfaction with the financial system into the American mainstream, Wolff founded Democracy at Work, a nonprofit that advocates for worker cooperatives–a business structure in which the employees own the company, and share decision-making power over salaries, schedules, and where profits are directed. “If I had to pinpoint right now where the transition away from capitalism is happening in the United States, it’s in worker co-ops,” Wolff says. Though he’s been championing the cause of cooperatives–a radically democratic departure from the top-down capitalist business structure–for years, certain recent events, like the 2008 recession and the presidency of Donald Trump, poster boy for corrupt capitalism, have galvanized a distinctly anti-capitalist movement in the U.S.
“Americans are getting closer and closer to understanding that they live in an economic system that is not working for them, and will not work for their kids,” Wolff says. Growing awareness that wages have been unable to keep up with inflated costs of living have left younger generations particularly disillusioned with capitalism’s ability to support their livelihoods, Wolff says, and with CEOs out-earning employees by sometimes as much as 800 to 1, it makes sense that public interest should be swinging toward a workplace model that encapsulates shared ownership, consensus-based decision making, and democratized wages.
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