Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to this special video edition of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership with The Real News Network and In These Times Magazine. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and thank you so much for joining us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the terrain of work and the lives of working people in drastic ways. At its height, in April of 2020, the official unemployment rate in the US was nearly 15%.
To put that in context, the official unemployment rate peaked at 10% during the height of the Great Recession. Millions of workers lost their jobs over the past year and a half. Millions more saw their work reoriented to remote work, possibly for good. There’s a lot of discussion right now about the future of work after COVID-19 and what it will look like. But it’s also important to understand how the pandemic catalyzed or compounded existing trends in the economy that have remapped the terrain of work over the past half century.
With more and more people being funneled into the gig economy meat grinder, and with increasingly monopolistic entities like Amazon absorbing more and more of the economy into itself, and with care work being the fastest growing labor sector, it is equally, if not more important, for us to grapple with these changes–both to better understand the world that we are living in and to better understand how and where a genuine working class politics can develop in the 21st century. To help us navigate these questions, I could not be more honored to be joined by professor Richard Wolff. Richard Wolff is the professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a visiting professor in the graduate program in international affairs of the New School University in New York City. He’s the founder of Democracy At Work and host of their nationally syndicated show, Economic Update, which, if you haven’t watched it, you absolutely should.
Professor Wolff’s latest book is The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us from Pandemics Or Itself, which can be found along with his other books, Understanding Socialism and Understanding Marxism, at ww.democracyatwork.info. Professor, thank you so much for joining me today.
Richard Wolff: Max, it’s a pleasure to do so and to be a part of The Real News Network and its allied associated entities like In These Times. This is part of what is going to save this country, if anything can.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, it’s an honor to be in that struggle with you. As I said to folks watching and listening to this, if you were not an avid watcher or listener to Wolff’s work and to all the great work being done at Democracy At Work, you absolutely should be, and you need to remedy that right away.
Professor, I wanted to really wanted to bring you on to help us navigate these big questions, right? Because as I mentioned at the top of this, there’s a lot of discussion going on right now about what the future of work is going to be after COVID-19. A lot of these discussions were actually happening before the pandemic, whether we were talking about automation, whether we were talking about remote work, whether we were talking about the expansion of the “gig economy” and its model into other labor sectors.
But as we mentioned, the pandemic has really catalyzed a kind of extreme change in our economy and in the terrain of work. I don’t think that any of us have fully grasped what those changes are and the effects that they have and are going to have on the lives of working people. I wanted to bring you on to help us navigate this and to help us place this past year and a half in the broader context of the changing economy, both domestically and internationally, and the changing terrain of work since World War II, which is something that you cover beautifully and extensively over at Democracy At Work.
So, I think to even begin to have this sort of conversation, as you do so well regularly, it’s important to kind of define our terms. If we’re talking about who and where the working class is in the 21st century, I think it would behoove us to first kind of take a second to talk about what we mean by the term ‘working class.’ On the show Working People, I’ve made it very explicit that I don’t want to actively define this or narrowly define what the working class is, who the working class is, for listeners. I would rather have the stories of different workers in different industries, really piece together a larger understanding of what being working class means.
I wanted to turn this over to you and ask: In your own work, and in the discussions that we’re having now about the future of work, how do you think we should be thinking about the term ‘working class’? Who should it include and what should the criteria be?
Richard Wolff: Let me begin by saying this is a very, very important question. It’s not an academic exercise, it’s not an abstraction. If we’re going to change the society that we live in in a progressive, new way, then we have to understand what we’re dealing with, and that requires us to take stock of the lay of the land that we’re proposing to change. I would argue, the way I see it is that, depending on what you’re trying to understand or change, that will shape how you define the object you’re working with.
It’s a little bit like–if I can use a metaphor–a sculptor, a man or a woman who makes shapes out of the physical universe. But whether you’re working with clay, or whether you’re working with a special kind of plastic, or whether you’re working with ice, I mean, all the different things sculptors have used, well, it affects how they go about their work, what they’re dealing with, and they have to come to a sense of what this medium is. I think we have to do the same, and we have to be flexible. I like your idea of drawing from your audience conceptions of the working class, because there’s not a right and a wrong one. There are lots of different ones, and that has to be faced.
With all that background, let me give you the answer I give. For many of the purposes that I have as an analyst and an activist, I divide the society, the capitalist society here in the United States–or, indeed, globally–into two classes to start the conversation. One of them is the class of the employers, and the other one is the class of the employees. For me, I come out of a study of history, I come out of the Marxist tradition. I don’t deny it. I don’t pretend about it. It’s not the only tradition that I have learned from, but it is one of them, and I’m not going to disavow it any more than that I would allow all kinds of other right-wing ideas into my head.
Okay, here’s the notion. The slave system had two key positions, master and slave. That doesn’t mean that all the masters were alike, and it doesn’t mean that all the slaves were the same. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t divisions among the slaves. There always were; likewise among the masters. But for certain kind of key purposes of understanding, I work with a distinction between the master and the slave, and I compare it to feudalism, and I see the lord and the serf. And then I come to capitalism, and I see the employer and the employee.
The reason I set it up that way is there’s something quite fundamental, not more or less important, but something very fundamental in this society. The master is in charge. Isn’t he? He makes the key decisions. He runs the plantation. He runs the enterprise. He runs whatever you want to call it. And, likewise, the lord over the feudal manor in feudalism. The serf has her position, but it is clearly a subordinate position, and it was one of Marx’s great insights to see that capitalism didn’t, as it thought it did, break from those old ones as completely as it imagined. It broke from them in many ways, but it replicated the split between two key positions. One, a very small minority running the show. And another, a very large majority being either slaves or serfs or employees.
I find useful insights into what’s happening by starting there. But then I go another step, because there are lots of differences within the class of employees. For example, and one highlighted in the way I think about it, is the difference between those who, and now to use the Marxian language, produce a surplus. All those people who make the software, the chairs, the hamburgers, the ice cream cones, the shirts, the blouses, all of it. There are people who work transforming nature, lumber and so forth, using tools, for example, hammers and nails, to come up with a finished product, the chair or the table that use that as an example. Those people in the Marxian theory, they do the work that produces the vast bulk of goods and services like the slaves, like the serfs.
And they always–one of Marx’s great points–they always produce more of those things, the goods and services, than they themselves consume. In other words, yeah, they make chairs and they sit on chairs. But if you add up all the chairs all the chair makers produce with all the chairs that the working class of people sit on, there’s more chairs. There’s more value than what they, the workers, consume. What is that surplus? That’s the income of the people at the top, the employer class, who are in the business, which they will tell you themselves, to make money, to come away with more than they threw in.
There’s no magic here. They haven’t overcome the laws of thermodynamics. They understand that you don’t get out more than you put in. Well, what happens? Well, they’re not getting out more than they’re putting in. What they’re getting out is what they put in, the raw materials, the workers, the technology, and they get out what those things can produce. But what they can produce is more than what they give to their employees as their income, and that more, which they like to call profit, is why they’re in business. They want to get that more from this situation, which they do.
That’s why they’re the employer. That’s why they’re in the position of deciding when it’s profitable to hire someone and when it isn’t. That’s why capitalism basically holds all of us that are employees hostage. We’re only going to get a job if it’s profitable for one of them to hire us. Whoa, what a remarkable non-equivalence here. They hire and fire. We hope we’re not among the fired. We seek a job, which they are in a position to give us or take away from us. I then get really interested in the difference between the workers who produce a surplus, the ones who actually make this stuff, and another group of workers, a group of workers just as important as this first group, the ones who make the surplus, but they don’t.
They are in charge of creating the conditions that enable a worker to be productive of a surplus. Let me give you an example. The purchasing department of a capitalist enterprise. I’ll stick with my chair example. Someone has to worry to buy the lumber that’s going to be transformed. Somebody has to purchase the nails and hammers and arrange for the electricity that will power the machine. That person isn’t making a chair. That person is doing something else, collecting, buying the inputs. Without that, nothing gets produced. It’s just as important as the worker who, by his brains and muscles, transforms the lumber using the hammer into the chair.
So, there’s no ranking of the importance of these workers. You got to have them both. Somebody has to collect the inputs, or this game doesn’t happen, but they’re radically different. One of these people is on the factory floor, and another one of them is sitting in an office. Everything about their experience is different. In many, many ways, they are part of capitalism, they share being employees. The check they get at the end of the week comes from the same core … So, there are key similarities, the things they have in common, but there are, likewise, very profound differences. Capitalism arranges things that way, and we have to understand that when you’re given the divisions of capitalism and your goal is to go beyond the capitalism, you’ve got to take the differences and overcome them.
Work with people that respect that they have a different life experience, that they have a different daily life. You have to work that out. There are moments when there are conflicts. For example, the boss is coming down on the guy who, or the man or the woman, who goes out and buys the lumber in our chair story, and they put a lot of pressure on them. They come back and they say, “Well, it’s not my problem. It’s the guys in the shop who are not working the lumber in the right way.” That’s the real, ooh, this now becomes a conflict between two groups of workers, and that has to be faced.
That’s going to happen. That’s going to create divisions between workers. But if your project is to get beyond capitalism, you see that not simply as a problem, but as a problem that needs to be solved if you’re going to–here comes the punchline–if out of all the complex differences in the class of employees, you’re going to construct a politically powerful movement strong enough to change the society. I have no doubt that we can do that. I have no doubt that the contradictions of capitalism, the uniqueness of that system, makes it vulnerable. And you know why? Because history teaches no other lesson. Slavery isn’t here anymore. Feudalism isn’t here anymore.
In other words, those systems eventually were overthrown. While, yes, they fell apart, that’s part of the story, they were also actively shaped by people who wanted to go beyond that. I’m not going to allocate which is more responsible. The two things work together and made every other system pass. There’s no reason to assume that capitalism has some magical quality that exempts it from this process. The people who like capitalism want us to think that history has stopped and something that happened to every other system will never happen to this one.
But my response is always to remind them, in slavery, there were people like that who thought it would never pass. And in feudalism, there were people … Get the picture? The burden isn’t on us who want to change, because that’s been universal. The burden is on the conservatives who imagine that they can keep this from happening to their system.
Long story short, we have differences of position within capitalism. The example I gave you, the white … By the way, people have understood these things. I’m not saying anything really new. I’m putting it a little differently, but people have understood, for example, the difference between the blue-collar worker and the white-collar worker.
Well, that getting into exactly what I’m talking about. That’s right. Blue collar, white collar, then people later answered pink collar. It becomes more complicated. We know of course, of the differences that we are in our culture, able now to talk about racial differences, gender differences, skill differences, educational differences, age differences. Those are all real. Those are all products, either of capitalism or they’re shaped in a particular way by capitalism, and those are the raw materials out of which you build a class that is conscious of itself, that understands and respects its differences.
Doesn’t want to ride roughshod over … We’re not all the same because we share certain things. The things we share are very important, have to be right there. We are wage-earners. We are the order-takers in the capitalist enterprise. In my work, I like to stress that we imagine we got rid of the kings in this world, the monarchies, several centuries ago. And we did, sort of, but the monarchs played a trick. When we got rid of them in politics, they slipped underneath the dividing line and became CEOs in the corporate world. That’s just a king by another name. We are all his subjects. The minute we enter the factory, the office, the store, we are told where to sit, what to do, how to do it, when to go to the bathroom, how long to stay in the bathroom.
At the end of the day, when we have poured our brains, our muscles, into the work we have to do, we’re told to get out of there, leave behind everything we did, go home, watch TV, have a beer, eat some pizza, and come back tomorrow and do it again. They’re the kings. We are all the subjects. They’re not accountable to us. We don’t control them. They have the power to hire and fire us. We don’t have the reverse. There’s nothing remotely democratic about any of this.
Parentheses, this is in a country which keeps calling itself democratic, but the workplace never was. We never allowed one bit of democracy.
If you confronted a CEO today with a democratic demand, that everybody in the enterprise should have one person, one vote, and we should decide by majority rule what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits we all help to make, they will fire us. And that will end that conversation really quickly. For me, I’m very optimistic. We haven’t done a good job. I’m critical, but I’m optimistic. We can do what every other system’s people have done. We could get together and figure out, with respect for what differentiates us, an achievement of unity strong enough to make a transition to a system that will be better for all of us.
For me, I’m just impatient that we haven’t gotten further along on this project than we have.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I think your impatience is warranted and something that we should all be feeling to some degree, right? I mean, because–Look around you. We are seeing the catastrophic effects of climate change. We are living in a state of extreme wealth inequality and political inequality that coincides with that. We are perpetually in a state of war. When I say we, I largely mean the United States, but there are a lot of serious threats to the world that we live in and our ability to live dignified lives within it right now.
I think that I really want to underscore for viewers and listeners that those are the stakes of what we’re talking about. If we know that this society is untenable, then we need, kind of, political solutions to change it.
Doing so requires building a critical mass of people who will push in that direction. Therein lies the traditional Marxist program of building a politics out of the working class–A, because the working class is there, like professor Wolff said, at the very heart, at the genesis, of everything that drives this sort of system, everything that makes profits possible. Working people are the ones moving the gears of this system; thus, they are best placed to stop those gears and reorient that system.
But building that sort of base of working class people and organizing in the direction that professor Wolff was talking about, by finding those commonalities, by respecting those differences, by building political engines and organs that can actually express the power and rage of the working class, that is the continual conundrum that we are faced with.
That is why it’s actually really important to think about the definition that professor Wolff gave. Because when we talk about who or what the working class is, there are a lot of, I guess, business school-type definitions that look at how much a person earns–Which we know is not necessarily a great indicator, because if you’re making $30,000 in New York City, that’s different than making $30,000 in rural Nebraska. There’s also categorical definitions, like whether or not someone has a college degree or what kind of job they do. These are all helpful for understanding the divisions within the larger class that professor Wolff described.
But, ultimately, I wholeheartedly agree that there’s something really valuable in thinking about the large historical distinctions between not just the haves and have-nots, but–as you said–the owners and the workers, slaves and masters, lords and serfs, the order-givers and the order-takers in our society. I think that that’s something that is really important for all of us to sit with right now, especially because I think there’s a big tendency for us to gatekeep over who is and isn’t in the working class. And we use a lot of those sorts of definitions to do so, but when it comes down to it, the vast amount of us are not in the order-giver category.
I wanted to actually use that to talk about how that sort of category of order-givers and order-takers, of owners and workers, the ruling class and the working class, has really developed over the course of the past half century, and even more. You recently did an incredible lecture laying out the political and economic development of the US and China side by side. You did so with an incredible narrative power that you always demonstrate that I think gives people a really clear sense of where we are and where we’re going.
I wanted to ask if we could harness that, that narratorial power that you have, to help people understand how the terrain of the working class, who and what it is, where they’re working, and what their conditions for living and working are; how that has developed over that similar arc that you traced in your recent lecture on the US and China’s development.
Richard Wolff: Sure. Let me try to do that and pick up on something you said at the very beginning of this discussion. I’m always impressed that the working class, the employees–using that general term for the moment–how they are always fighting. There are always elements of working class that are doing exactly what I suspect will eventually change this system; namely, pushing against the power of capital, resisting the order-givers, demanding in their own time and in their own way to give some orders, here. It might help if I talk about some of these struggles right now, and then show you how they reflect the evolution of the working class in this country.
To do so, I’m going to start with an example from Europe, and then you’ll see that it applies to the United States. Europe went through a remarkable change 20 years ago when it stopped being a collection of independent divided countries that had had two horrific world wars in the 20th century among them; the British, the Germans, the French, the Spanish, the Italians, Scandinavians, and all of that. And they unified. They created a unified … something called the European Union, or sometimes the United States of Europe, and so forth. This was discussed in terms of overcoming the wars among them, that they would now be unified rather than at each other’s throats in such terrible ways. And they could better compete with the United States, which was a unified country, and so on. That was the language.
Underneath the language was a very different capitalist reality. The capital, the employers in each government, had the power and the foresight to dominate how that new unified thing would work. What they did was to use it to enhance all the things they were doing to pull more profits out of the working class and to squash all the initiatives of the working class to fight back, and it changed the terrain of politics, of the culture, of everything else about Europe. The promise that a unified Europe would be a great thing for the mass of people proved to be completely erroneous. It was a heyday for the capitalists.
One of the remarkable ways that you might find interesting was the transition from the individual currencies, the German mark, the French franc, the Italian lira, whatever it was, to the euro, the one that we’re now familiar with. Every business in Europe, virtually every business, use the transition to play a little hustle, to actually make the price in euros higher for whatever they sold from what it was before. That was never intent of a unified currency, but it was used to make money.
An analogy for you all right now: There’s discussion in the United States, and over the last year, we’ve had an inflation in the United States. That’s true. Prices are generally about 5%, 5.5% higher now than they were a year ago.
Some prices have really gone crazy. Used cars are up 30%, and so forth. Well, let me remind you what an inflation is. An inflation has to do with a general rise of prices. Here we go, now. Who sets prices in a capitalist system? Answer: the employer. Who has to pay the prices that everything has? The employees. Inflation is a kind of class war. It is an ability of those in a position to set the prices, to jack them up, and the rest of us, we have to take whatever money we get, and we can afford fewer things now, because the prices have gone up. They raised the price to make more profits. That’s why they do everything.
We are going to have to take it on the chin because we can’t … Our standard of living is going down at a rate of 5% a year, which is very high, and they’re making more money. Nobody discusses that. The inflation is discussed in abstract terms, as if we all face this together. That was what they did in Europe. We’re all going to have the euro together. We’re all going to have a unified Europe. Yeah, but it’s a very different story for some than for others.
Here’s another example of how things have changed. The COVID shutdown of a year and a half basically meant very different things in this society. A number of Americans now get that, and they’re very angry, when we spent the last week watching, some of us, how Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson competed to spend their billions in a race into space while there were masses of homeless people, hungry people. I mean, you couldn’t be grosser than that.
But let’s go further. Over these last 18 months, let’s take a look. The rich became richer. You all know the numbers. If you take the 600 billionaires in the United States and you add up their wealth, it’s in the trillions, and they got almost a trillion more over the last 16 months, 18 months. Meanwhile, 82–it’s the latest count that I have–82 million American workers had to go on unemployment at some point over the last 18 months.
Some of them were only unemployed a few weeks. Some of them weren’t employed the whole time. But that’s more than half the labor force of the United States. That is a staggering statistic. More than one out of two. The American labor force is numbered roughly 160 million. Well, if 82 million had to go on unemployment for a period of time, that’s more than one out of two. You know, when you’re unemployed, your self-esteem suffers, your income suffers, you use up whatever savings you might have had, you lean on your friends, your relatives, in ways they cannot tolerate, because they’re having their problems right now real well, which means alcoholism, spouse abuse, divorce, all of these things. Mental and physical ailments.
We subjected our working class to a staggering imposition around what–we’re all struggling through COVID together. That’s like, we’re all unifying Europe together. BS is what that was. Some of us are making money off of it, and others of us are losing our shirts.
But here is another dimension. During those 18 months, every business in the United States saw an opportunity. They couldn’t all take advantage of it, but many have. They began to rethink, under a lot of pressure, how they ran their business. They were losing money. You don’t make a profit if your workers aren’t there, if they can’t come into work because they’re sick, or they’re afraid of getting sick, or there’s a lockdown, or whatever it is.
All capitalists learned or relearned a lesson. You can have great machines, you can have fantastic technology; you don’t have the worker, you got nothing. Without the worker they didn’t get their profits. Now they can reopen, but they learned something. If we’re going to recoup the profits we didn’t get for 18 months, we’re going to have to get more out of what we’re doing now. And they studied, because they’re not stupid, and they hired people. Some of my students work for the companies they hired, which is how I know about this. Here’s what they did. I’m going to give you a little example.
With this department over here, we have had five people, but if we rearrange it a little bit, we’re going to call back four people, not five. We can get this work done with four salaries, not five, and you know how this is playing out? There’s a statistic the government keeps that is off the chart. It’s called the statistic of quitting. Workers are brought back to their jobs, sometimes from the get-go they see, but sometimes it takes a few days, a few weeks. You know what? They realized what’s happening. Not only were they screwed during this COVID disease, but they’re about to be screwed for the rest of their lives, because they’re not getting the pay they did before, or they’re not getting the benefits they did before, or they’re made to do more work than they were before without getting any extra pay.
And their answer is, I quit. Because the quit numbers are off the chart. That, for us, should be a fantastic opportunity, because it’s workers pushing back. It hurts to quit. You don’t want to quit, but you are so angry. You understand, even if it only in the little personal perspective of what you see, what’s being done to you. You’re being ripped off.
Now, your point, Max. All of this stuff has been going on before. You don’t need COVID. Your employers are always looking for how to shave a job here or how to save over there. There are whole courses in business schools, how to–they’re very polite–they’re how to “economize on labor costs.” That’s a nice way of saying screw a worker out of a job, or get more out of her than you pay her, etc.
But the reality is we have been in an environment, particularly since the 1970s, when American capitalism had the end of its special time. What do I mean? World War II destroyed all capitalist systems in the world except the United States. The British were wiped out. The Germans were wiped out. The Japanese were wiped out. Their factories were largely destroyed. Their working classes decimated by the war. These were countries whose capitalism had brought them to the brink of disaster, with one exception, forgetting for a moment about Pearl Harbor. There was no war on American territory, on US territory, other than at Pearl Harbor.
Our railroads were intact, our harbors were fine. Our working class had been put back to work by the war. So, we came out of it in a fantastic profitable situation. 1945-1975, 30 special years. By the 1970s, the special was over. The Japanese had come back. The Germans likewise. That’s why we’re all driving German and Japanese cars, aren’t we? And it all got going then, didn’t it? And American capitalism found itself competing. No longer in charge, no longer the dominant society that was controlling everything. It began to have real competitors.
I want to express to all of you: at that point, the capitalists did what they always do, but extra. They had to find a way to compete, and so they came down on their working class. They really went to work to smash the unions, and they did a really good job. They really went to work to smash their competitors if they could, to subordinate them if they could. And when they couldn’t beat them, they joined them. What did that mean? They took the factories out and they went to wherever the labor was cheaper, wherever they could get the job done by someone else.
That begins what we used to call the de-industrialization of the United States; the end of New England as an industrial hub, the end of the Midwest as an industrial hub. The movement of whatever was left to the Southwest, to the South, to California, because they could get more profits there than they could in the heartland that was politically organized by the working class that make it a little harder for them. And so begins what I just described with COVID, and COVID is kind of the last step of it, but it has been going on for decades before that, which is why Americans feel pressured, stressed. There’s never quite enough money.
The 1970s, they did the biggest thing, which in a way is the most tragic. They stopped raising the wages. Before that, they got so much profit they could give a little back to the workers who could get a few percentages every year. In the 1970s, it stopped. For those of you not familiar, the real wage, what an hour’s worth of work will enable you to buy, is not much larger today than it was in 1978. Wow. Over all the intervening 40 years, workers became more productive in America. And all that more productive means, in an hour, the average worker gave the employer more output each year, but the employer who pays the wage gave the worker the same. What worker gives employer goes up. What employer gives worker is the same.
You don’t need a genius to understand. Of course the rich get richer, they’re getting the growth. The working class isn’t. But because we didn’t organize them then, because this wasn’t the story that was explained to them, because there was no organization to pull all this together, individual American workers thought it was their problem. Not this social development, not this economic reality. You know what they did? Really, it’s tragic. They worked more hours. You know, if you’re not getting paid any more per hour like you’re used to, well, then you got to do more hours.
They had the men in the family do more hours. If the women weren’t leaving the home to get a paid job out there, they began doing it in record numbers. Yeah, they might’ve called it women’s liberation, and there was an element of that there, for sure, but it was also a family’s budgetary necessity. Then they did this thing, which–again, if you have any compassion at all, here’s your moment for it. The American working class tried to hold on to its rising standard of living over the previous century, but wages no longer allowed it. Wages didn’t cover it. Wages couldn’t afford it. So, they did that thing we all know. They became pioneers of a new kind. They borrowed more money than any working class in the history of the world ever borrowed.
More money for your mortgage, for your home, money to buy your car on time, money in your credit card to buy the bottled water at the neighborhood bodega. Then the last one of the last 30 years, college debt. I mean, we’re a society that lives on a fantasy that this is all going to work out all right. 2008 was the wake up call. Not working, can’t pay, prime mortgage, all that vague noise, that’s the end of the borrowing binge. There’s no binge left. Now the squeezing is getting harder because there’s no fantasy offset of credit. People are desperate now.
The COVID is now forcing those who are employers, if they’re going to survive, to squeeze even harder, and it’s making life extremely difficult. The interesting thing is, it’s making the working class, if I dare use this term, come a little bit out of hibernation like a bear, beginning, almost to have to face. Despite all of the education in the other direction, the schools, the politicians, the media pushing the other way, working people are beginning to understand what they face, and who their allies might be, and who their enemies are. I can’t think of a better set of circumstances in which the project of taking the different components of the working class and showing them the parallel pressures coming out of a system that no longer works for the majority of people. It hasn’t for decades.
It could have made that claim before the ’70s, because at least while the rich got richer, the working class, most of it, the white part particularly, had a rising standard of living, but they can’t make those claims anymore. None of that is true. That reality, no matter what fantasies the Donald Trumps and the Tucker Carlsons invent, powerful as they are, that they face a reality that isn’t going to go away, that the very forces they serve are making worse. People ask me, in kindness, why has my audience over the last 10 years grown? And believe me, I’m as overwhelmed by it as anybody observing it. Does it gratify my ego? Of course, how could it not? But it isn’t me. I’m not saying things that are all that different from what I said 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.
I’m a little bit like that person who whistles a tune that’s irritating and annoying for years, and then suddenly people say, “Hey, what’s that tune? That’s really good. I would love to see …” It ain’t me. Same thing I’ve been whistling all along. That’s the good news, because it’s the audience that has changed, and that was the goal all along. I’m enthralled. And you pick up optimism from me, that’s my experience. That’s not wishful thinking. That’s what I’m watching as I see.
I recently noted, I had an interview on my program with–I won’t mention names–with the head of the AFL-CIO in the state of Vermont. Now, a bunch of progressive young people ran for office in the State of Vermont in the AFL-CIO system. And they won, they won elections. A majority of the union voters went for them. They’re taking all kinds of progressive stands. They’re pushing, and they’re working with a labor movement that’s solidly behind them. Now, it’s irritating other parts of the labor movement that isn’t ready to do that yet, but that’s been what we’ve had for a long time. What’s new, what’s exciting, and what is young. Are these new? These are extremely important. I just picked that one because it’s in my head.
I could give you a dozen other examples. They’re in your program. They’re in In These Times. They’re in reports of the Real News Network. And that’s as it should be. We are witnessing something that is, in my judgment–and this is a new thing, I haven’t thought this until the last couple of years–I’ve always noticed that capitalism has enormous resiliency. I admire it. It’s come through a lot of really difficult moments and figured out ways to survive, or even to grow. I’ve usually been able to figure out, oh yeah, it has this. If this happens, they can get out. If this … I got to tell you though, as a professional economist, which is what I am, I’ve been teaching economics all my life, I don’t see a way out. I just don’t.
And for me, I don’t know why I don’t. I look for it. I don’t want to be saying things are … if I can see a way out. But I cannot. The problems of the United States have been kicked down the road so long. They’ve amounted–you see it all around us, whether it’s in white supremacy, or whether it’s in dead end jobs, or it’s this unbelievable inequality that we continue to make worse, the system isn’t … It isn’t even able to deal with the problems it sees, let alone the ones that it doesn’t see. So, for me, I think I’m watching the end.
The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. We have one of the most developed medical systems in the world, and we’re number one in the people who died of COVID. That is a level of failure that is epoch-making. People who look back and ask, when did the feudal system in Europe, which lasted a thousand years, when was it over? And the answer most come to is they point to something that happened in the 13th and 14th centuries, which we now call the black plague, the bubonic plague, the black death. It was a pandemic like we’ve just been through. Worse, but like we’ve just been through. I’m beginning to wonder, and I’m not the only one, whether this level of failure to cope will not, in fact, be what historians remember was the signal that there’s something fundamentally wrong here.
We have the people who can do the work. We have the factories that can make the tests, the masks, the ventilators, all of it. We have it, but our system can’t. Just like we have all the work to be done in our society that could give good jobs to all the unemployed tomorrow. We all know we can make a list of what we need. Save us from planetary self-destruction, green this country, do something for the aging population besides stick them in nursing homes with inadequate care. Come on, we know what needs to be done. We have the people who want to do the work. We have the work needing to be done, and we have the tools and equipment.
The Federal Reserve keeps a record–it’s called factory or capacity utilization is the name. And that measures how many of our tools, equipment, factories, what proportion is being used for production, and what is sitting idle gathering rust and dust. It’s about 20%, 25% that’s gathering rust and dust. Why do I mention it to you? We have the equipment, the tools, the factory. We have the workers who want work, and we have the work needing to be done. And this system can not put it together, because unless there’s profit in it, nothing happens. We’re held hostage. For me, the very ability you and I have in this moment to have this conversation is itself a symptom that this system is over.
Maximillian Alvarez: I mean, I think that that’s incredibly powerfully put. In a way, it’s something that I think we all know or sense implicitly, because the evidence is all around us. We see the decay, we see the, kind of, crumbling infrastructure, the very physical decay of this, the richest nation in the world, right? We feel the squeeze and our inability to keep up with the cost of living. We see how the resources that could enable us, as a society, to tackle the world historical issues that we currently face, the climate change, inequality, war, and so on. We see those resources available, and we see where they’re going to. We are having this conversation just a day after Jeff Bezos returned from the very edge of space, and almost to spit in the face of every working person in the country, said thank you to every Amazon worker and customer; you paid for this.
That is where that surplus is going. It is going to a billionaire space race. It is getting siphoned off and pocketed in offshore accounts. It is not going back into the society that is experiencing the rot and living through that rot.
I’m really appreciative that we ended up at this point professor–and I know I’ve only got you for a couple minutes–because I think, in one way, I was approaching this conversation thinking about, again, those specific categories of work. Maybe we’ll have to have a follow-up conversation about that, because before the pandemic, the biggest categories of work included things like retail salesperson, fast food and counter workers, cashiers, registered nurses, but the fastest growing sector of the workforce was care work.
You’ve mentioned that the boomer generation is now the largest aging generation that the United States has seen, and the only sort of economic solution for providing jobs, for producing something in this country, that we have right now is really just to funnel the younger generation to care for the aging generation, or push people into gig work and piecework. As far as the big strokes of the economy go, like you said, American capitalism has no answer for working people to reach that kind of comfortable existence. It’s going to take more than just the kind of jobs we have or the amount that we’re able to earn to secure that middle-class existence. The rot goes much deeper.
In the last couple of minutes that I have you, I wanted to ask, in terms of really cohering that message and really trying to bridge those gaps among the order-takers of our society, be they white-collar workers in office buildings, be they janitors or gig workers in California, in Texas, how do we use this sort of larger narrative of capitalist decay and really find the ties that bind the working class and mobilize that large group of order-takers and non-owners to push for the kind of political future that we need?
Richard Wolff: Well, I think the answer is very ancient. I think the system, as it crumbles, enables the old truisms to take on a new shine, a new urgency, a new echo in people’s feelings and thoughts as we go forward. Let’s remember, the reason we import billions and billions of goods from China, or from Vietnam, or from any of the other … is because overwhelmingly, American corporations closed their operations in the United States and moved them there. People used to say, in general, about 50% of what comes from China is coming from the subsidiary of an American corporation. If you add partnerships, it’s even bigger number that do that.
This is a way the capitalist system made more money. It isn’t going to come back from that. Everything it does is built on that. They’re not coming back. For example, every one of the last half dozen presidents has said, “I’m going to bring manufacturing back.” Every one of them lied. They lied because they couldn’t do it. And they shouldn’t have claimed that they could. Biden, by the way, keeps that tradition, the silly tradition going. There’s good reason. The system adjusts to the levels of profits it’s earned. It increased its profitability over the last 30, 40 years by globalization, by taking the jobs out, by bringing lower-paid people in as immigrants, by the automation–most important of all of them–of the computerization and the robotization, and all the rest.
They’re not going back. They can’t. Their institutions, their finances, everything depends on it. Why am I saying this? Because they are going, if they give any jobs to the mass of Americans, they’re going to give them what David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.” They’re going to give them empty paper shuffling, or fast food, or caring for the elderly, and they’re not going to pay them anything, and they’re not really going to care what kind of care is given in those institutions. I expect we will be seeing and hearing reports of unspeakable conditions in the care facilities for these older generations. I mean, an ugliness is unfolding in front of us. People got shocked when Mr. Trump put immigrant children in cages on our Southern border. But that’s a symptom, that this is now tolerable. You’re accustoming a society that will blame the victims, which are a growing part of our population.
That’s why I say I don’t see a way out. Because in the earlier periods, United States had no competitors. I don’t want to scare people, but the People’s Republic of China is a very serious competitor. Not militarily; and who knows, that may end our planet. But in every other way, they have figured out how to grow economically much faster than this country. And with their growth, they have grown at the rate three times the United States for the last 40 years. I mean, and with that comes the political influence. They handled this medical crisis of COVID way better than we did, with four times the population, and a poorer country to begin with.
You cannot keep this hustle going. I think what Americans have to understand is the shift from a regular job to a gig job, to having to have three jobs that you run between every week as the norm, that a new … These are all details of a crunching down on the working class in this country. We are not anymore going to be here looking at the rest of the world on our geography TV show, how much less they got. We are entering where they have always been, and that’s a terrible difficulty. Look at the British. They still can’t quite get over that they don’t have an empire anymore, but the actual reality of the British working class is a disaster now.
That’s what’s facing the American working class. Are you really willing to have it ratcheted down step by step? Now you lost your job, now the prices are going up too much, now you have to run around even harder for your gig job. Now you have no insurance that covers you for this or for that. You’re being attacked at a hundred different points. At some point, only a class movement will solve your problem. These are social problems. Americans still experience them as if they were individual problems. They’re social problems.
It is an impossible task to give yourself, to imagine that you, as an individual, can solve the social problem. The way you solve social problems is with social movements that make social changes. Otherwise you are just beating yourself up, and you’re really two steps away from confronting a life that’s falling apart and spending a lot more time, as we used to say, with Jim Beam.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, on that note, I think we can call this a wrap. Again, these are the stakes, this is the task, and the time is very much now. Professor Richard Wolff, founder of Democracy At Work and host of their show, Economic Update, I can’t thank you enough for joining me. To everyone watching, please go check out Democracy At Work, support all the great work that they do. Professor, thank you so much, and I hope to chat to you again soon.
Richard Wolff: Absolutely, and let’s continue the discussion about the American working class. I feel as though we just began, and there’s a lot more work to do, so let’s do it again sometime soon.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yes, let’s please do that. Let’s make this the first of many conversations. It was a real honor to talk to you, professor. To all of you watching, I’m Maximillian Alvarez, the editor-in-chief here at The Real News. Thank you so much for watching. And please, before you go, subscribe to our YouTube channel, go to therealnews.com/support, and become a monthly sustainer to support our work. Thank you so much.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work and the lives of working people in drastic ways. Millions of workers lost their jobs over the past year and a half, millions more saw their in-person jobs reoriented to remote work, possibly for good. While there is a lot of discussion right now about what the future of work will look like after COVID-19, it’s important to understand how the pandemic accelerated existing trends in the economy that have been remapping the terrain of work and the makeup of the working class over the past half century.
In this special video edition of Working People, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez talks with world-renowned economist Richard D. Wolff about what these trends tell us about the global evolution of capitalism and how we can forge a diverse working-class political coalition in the 21st century that is capable of building a political and economic system that works for all of us. Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs at the New School in New York City; he is also the founder of Democracy at Work and host of their nationally syndicated show Economic Update. His latest book is The Sickness is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us from Pandemics or Itself.
Studio/Post Production: Adam Coley