Why the Neoliberal Drive to Privatize Everything Is Running Out of Gas

Yves here. I wish I didn’t have mixed feelings about this article, which would have benefitted from structural editing. On the one hand, it’s always useful to take stock of where we are in the neoliberal campaign to increase the power of investors and their operatives versus labor. I have trouble with Richard Wolff’s belief that we are in the midst of a backlash against markets uber alles to more acceptance of government intervention in the economy.

To that, I say “Huh?” We did have massive intervention in the wake of the global financial crisis (I don’t buy Wolff’s contention that the dot-bomb era rattled the system), in the form of bailouts and interest rate interventions designed to goose the housing market. This represented the largest looting of the public purse in history as well as an all-too-visible example of socialism for the rich. The Covid economic interventions, even though they have benefitted many low and medium wage workers, did even more for the well-off as income inequality widened greatly.

Biden promised nothing fundamental would change. He’s living up to that promise.

By Richard D. Wolff, 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. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Marxism, and Understanding Socialism. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Most Chileans recently voted out the remnants of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, along with Milton Friedman’s policies and many U.S. interventions. They are at work on a radically new Constitution. In the United States, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden gave diminishing lip service to (or just ignored) neoliberal orthodoxy to push for and get massive government interventions into U.S. capitalism. Most of what remains of private capitalism is surviving on unprecedented, massive government life support, monetary and fiscal. A tired rerun of Cold War-style demonizing provides the ideological cover for the fading neoliberalism. Both major parties endorse huge and growing government economic interventions as urgently needed, homeland security-driven, anti-China policies.

Pity the poor libertarians. Their audience fades because the same intrusive government they blame for all economic ills demands loyalty in its fight with China. Former President Richard Nixon was less dishonest 50 years ago when he reportedly said, “We are all Keynesians now.” In contrast, today’s GOP mouths “conservative economics,” yet merely quibbles over details of the government’s gigantic money creation and deficit financing.

Today’s declining U.S. capitalism can no longer repeat its previous bland celebrations of private enterprises and free markets. Too much is going wrong, provoking criticism, and deepening divisions across U.S. society. The last time U.S. capitalism stumbled this badly—the Great Depression of the 1930s—public health did not suffer massive failure at the same time. Yet, then too, criticism of capitalism reached far, wide, and deep. It was expressed in the unionization by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) of millions alongside zooming enrollments in two socialist parties and one communist party.

Yet, the New Deal negotiated by former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the employer class, on the one hand, with the coalition of unionists, socialists, and communists, on the other hand, achieved then much more than what President Biden seeks now. The pendulum then swung much farther from private enterprise and free markets to broad and deep economic interventions by the government—exemplified by Social Security, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, and the federal hiring program. The pendulum now swings likewise, if less far, from the neoliberal tradition of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to the government-led and government-regulated capitalism focused on “winning” the competition with China (or, as Trump promised, punishing the “cheating” performed by U.S. trading partners).

Then, the poles of economic debate mirrored the policy oppositions. It was private self-regulating and self-healing capitalism versus government regulatory interventions to save capitalism from self-destruction. Now, something basic has changed. The three capitalist crashes in 2000, 2008, and 2020, each much worse than the previous one, plus the failures to prepare for or cope with COVID-19, ushered in massive, ongoing government economic intervention. The Federal Reserve has smashed all prior records of money creation. The Treasury has smashed all prior records of financing government budget deficits with an expanding national debt. The private versus government parameters of economic debate are gone, replaced by de facto debates over the size, duration, and appropriate beneficiaries or targets of government interventions, monetary and fiscal.

Of course, government interventions in the economy were needed, solicited, and obtained across U.S. history by its private capitalists. But the latter feared that widening and eventually universal suffrage could turn government toward serving the interests of labor (the majority) rather than capital (the minority). So it was important to demonize the government’s economic interventions, to compare their effects unfavorably to what private capitalism had accomplished and could yet achieve. But now what remains of private capitalism increasingly depends upon and expects government interventions as the equivalent of life support in medically extreme situations. The old demonization of government economic intervention sounds increasingly hollow and out of touch with reality. To modernize Nixon, we might say, “We are all interventionists now.” And this has its inevitable effects on economic debates in academia, politics, and the media.

The die-hard libertarians and other supporters of free-market, private capitalism increasingly lump together liberals, social democrats, insufficient “conservatives,” Keynesians, socialists, and communists. They comprise an evil, awful bloc of “the other,” advocates for government economic intervention. While there are gradations among them, ranging from Xi Jinping to Donald Trump to Joe Biden, they are all viewed as advocates of massive government economic intervention. By articulating such a perspective, the die-hards inadvertently isolate and marginalize themselves as well as the economic debates defining them.

Contradictory discourse proliferates. U.S. officials denounce Chinese private megacorporations for their close ties to the Chinese government and military, as if their U.S. counterparts do not have comparable ties to the U.S. government and military. Chinese officials have celebrated their “socialist” achievements over the last 25 years, as if China had not invited and enabled private capitalist enterprises to enter and fuel those achievements. Increasingly, spokespersons in economies with greater degrees of private capitalism refer to economies with greater government intervention as “models” to be learned from. Thus, “we” must “learn” from “them” in order to better compete with them.

Slowly, the realization dawns that maybe it never was appropriate to center analytical attention and doctrinal disputation on the private versus public sectors of capitalist economies. Maybe all capitalisms mixed private enterprises and free markets with public enterprises and publicly regulated enterprises, markets, and economic planning activities. We do know that slave economic systems mixed private slave enterprises with public slave enterprises and state regulations of slave enterprises. We know that the same applies to feudal economic systems. It was a distraction to focus on the private versus public dispute as if it were central to understanding capitalism’s place in history and in modern society.

Perhaps economics as a discipline is shifting gears to focus on a different basic discourse and debate. At the micro level, this debate would contrast and compare the functioning and effects (economic, political, and cultural) of two alternative organizations of workplaces. One of them, contemporary capitalism—embodied in both private and public enterprises—entails a version of the dichotomies inherited from slavery and feudalism. In these dichotomies, a small minority—enslavers in slavery, lords in feudalism, and employers in capitalism—makes all the key workplace decisions, holds the major power positions, and accumulates disproportionate wealth relative to what the majority—slaves, serfs, and employees—gets. The alternative workplace organization now struggles to emerge from the shadows and margins of those dichotomous discourses and realities. It exhibits a communal, collective, or cooperative organization of the workplace. Instead of hierarchy, this alternative is a horizontal organization that makes all workplace participants equally powerful. Each has one vote to decide democratically what to produce, how and where, and what to do with the surplus or profits to which all workplace participants contributed. These are called worker self-directed enterprises, or WSDEs (see Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism).

At the macro level, the emerging debate would focus on how key institutions—markets, planning apparatuses, relations between workplaces and residential communities, schools, government, political parties, and so on—would link differently to the alternative enterprise organizations. The whole capitalism versus socialism debate would then be reorganized around this question: which enterprise organization—capitalist versus WSDE—best serves the interests of the communities engaged in such a debate.

Capitalism versus socialism debates would then stop being about private versus public ownership and free versus government-regulated (or planned) markets. They would refocus instead on hierarchical-capitalist versus democratic-collectivist organizations of workplaces (factories, offices, and stores). The original notion of socialism as a basic critique of and an alternative to capitalism would thereby return to displace its detour into debates over private versus public.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    The US has been going downhill since they confused making money with creating wealth.

    When you equate making money with creating wealth, people try and make money in the easiest way possible, which doesn’t actually create any wealth.
    In 1984, for the first time in American history, “unearned” income exceeded “earned” income.
    The American have lost sight of what real wealth creation is, and are just focussed on making money.
    You might as well do that in the easiest way possible.

    It looks like a parasitic, rentier capitalism because that is what it is.

    You’ve just got to sniff out the easy money.
    All that hard work involved in setting up a company yourself, and building it up.
    Why bother?
    Asset strip firms other people have built up, that’s easy money.
    The private equity firms have found an easy way to make money that doesn’t actually create any wealth.

    Private equity firms ransack their economy and they think it’s good because they make lots of money.
    The light bulb has just come on in the UK.
    We have eventually realised what they are up to.

    Bankers make the most money when they are driving your economy into a financial crisis.
    They will load your economy up with their debt products until you get a financial crisis.
    On a BBC documentary, comparing 1929 to 2008, it said the last time US bankers made as much money as they did before 2008 was in the 1920s.
    At 18 mins.
    The bankers loaded the US economy up with their debt products until they got financial crises in 1929 and 2008.
    As you head towards the financial crisis, the economy booms due to the money creation of unproductive bank loans.
    The financial crisis appears to come out of a clear blue sky when you use an economics that doesn’t consider debt, like neoclassical economics.

    Wall Street’s lobbyists aren’t doing them any favours.
    What’s good for bankers isn’t good for the US, but they haven’t worked it out yet.

    1. Rod

      I’ll say thanks for your efforts in expressing these thoughts. Sat down for a snack but got a buffet instead.

  2. Christopher Horne

    A nice vision. I was reading an article on Phys.org about ‘strategies of
    retreat’ for humanity, the wisdom of having a backup plan for cities that
    for example are threatened by rising water. Such a reasonable approach
    is clearly quite nascent now, which is a good marker of where the consciousness of human thought is concerned. Particularly for capitalism,
    one of whose mainstays of wealth is the rentier class, I believe this
    will soon become a crisis of sorts. Las Vegas is unsustainable,
    and cities like Phoenix soon will be. Is there a strategy of retreat for this
    class (and all the ‘dronelings’ (us) who will be collateral damage?

    1. Skip Intro

      I believe the strategy for retreat may already be evident. I expect public-backed insurance will make property owners whole in the cities deemed ‘sacrifice zones’. Others will be protected by heroic if doomed measures at holding back the water (or finding it), which will give them time to find bag holders. Mike Davis discusses the chronic inferno of Malibu canyon and the public resources and insurance that let ever nicer mansions be built in the fire’s ‘flood plain’. I think Florida will set the standards…

    2. Societal Illusions

      the sci-fi just shows the end results of abandonment; don’t recall any about them actually being abandoned…

  3. Procopius

    I am not an economist, but I don’t think any of the modern economic schools considers power relations. In the Econ 101 course I took, employers and employees were treated as if they had equal power over the outcome of wage negotiations, and in the market neither buyer not seller is able to impose a price. That’s why Joan Robinson’s The Economics of Imperfect Competition has been completely suppressed by the Fresh Water School and forgotten by the Salt Water School. Same way they ignore money and finance, to “simplify the abstraction.” I highly recommend Robinson’s book, by the way.

    1. Michael Hudson

      Robinson herself all but disowned it, saying that she had gone far beyond neoclassical supply-and-demandeconomics to become more Marxist. I’m sure you can find her statement on google.

        1. witters

          I like this: ““I don’t know math,” she quips, “so I am obliged to think.”

      1. skippy

        Whilst were at it old sod …. what insight do you have on some questionable Keynesian sorts having a wobble about Joan and Sraffa eg. when pressed on certain matters and Joan is attributed they get rather feisty and indignant and then close shop.

    2. Objective Ace

      We do see teaching of monopoly and monopsony power. But unfortunately it generally is treated as a binary event. Either there is a monopoly/monopsony or not. (This simplifies the math of lost “well being” significantly.) In reality, though, monopoly/monopsony power is not discrete, but rather a continuous phenomenon. The more monopsony power employers have the more they can take advantage of their workers. No need to be a 100 percent monopsonist.

        1. eg

          Monopsony is on the buy side; monopoly on the sell side though to your point, there are likely implications of the one for the other

    3. Skip Intro

      Wasn’t the point of economics to mask power relationships behind a myth of an invisible hand?

    4. Kouros

      Tim DiMuzio – The tragedy of human development the genealogy of capital as power

      Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler – Capital as Power A Study of Order and Creorder

  4. skippy

    Laborious topic due to the time and space the said topic covers e.g. words and meanings have different context over a protracted period and not many have suffered what it takes to make such distinctions.

    Compounded by what past user date on the whole bi polar labour/capital matrix e.g. where is the customer in this parable of capitalism that exists between the capitalist and labour – ????

    So much I could say but will keep it simple and say neoliberalism is a form of intellectual incest and history attests how that all works out …

      1. Christopher Horne

        Yes, Skippy
        ….Do tell!
        Though I would agree that ‘incest’ is a proper word to describe the
        doings of the casheratti- literally ‘all in the family’

        1. tegnost

          Accurate IMO, neoliberalism keeps it all in the family in the typically incestuous way that many things are recognized as not topics of conversation but are accepted as the way the sausage gets made, no pun intended…

      2. skippy

        The incest of money with an agenda replacing intellectual consideration to achieve a Prescriptive Narrative for the Unwashed to consume eg. said money seeks control over any other consideration based on desire[tm] alone.

  5. Noone from Nowheresville

    government-led and government-regulated capitalism focused on “winning” the competition with China

    And we will know this by how many supply chains, manufacturing plants and medium / high income wage earners are created in the US as well as the re-creating of an entry-level class of workers who can learn on the job. Outsourcing or insourcing to other countries’s workers, are those being wound down? Have we lifted the federal minimum wage or provided national health care? Have we eliminated the neoliberal infestation of Medicare or stopped the outsourcing by the states of Medicaid or the food stamps to third party corporations? How’s that patent thing coming for drugs? How are those new public health policies coming along after Covid proved how hollow and extractive our systems currently are?

    Let me know how many houses are purchased by PE and other institutional players in the coming foreclosure / eviction crisis. Or what we are proactively doing to stop / minimize said crisis. Tell me about those cash buyers who plan to live in their new purchase(s) vs. those who plan to rent via places like AirBnB. Let me know about monies & policies about to be spent / implemented to safely bring public transportation back and increase schedules, routes and number of transport vehicles. Are Uber and Lyft more powerful or less powerful than they were before? Tell me why we subsidize Bezos’ & Musk’s space program for space junk / tourism then turn around say cars for the peasants must go. Again see public policy on local public buses / trains.

    In the news, I see the Chamber of Commerce talking points about lazy workers and the need to cut off unemployment insurance. I see… well, not many ordinary people policy stories. Can’t remember if I saw any stories about the worker strikes going on around the country. Lots and lots of shaming though.

    Support for high wealth individuals as well as key international corporations or industries (even if their supply chains are overseas) seem to continuing without much negative press but the catfood commission is coming. The lazy workers bits prove to me that it’s already well on its way. Heck, I’m seeing tax cuts and a refusal to clawback / destroy monies via taxes to those who have been given great wealth with no strings attached at the state level.

    and those other countries rejecting neoliberalism… how long before there’s a coup, US sanctions or even direct military intervention?

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      The Fed gifts in the CARES Act are driving up stock prices and making Corporate shells whole by buying up the junk paper their management used to loot Corporate cash flows. The Fed gifts in the CARES Act have filled Big Money’s pockets with free cash to buy up small and medium businesses and fund consolidation of markets. The policies of rent and mortgage moratoriums, bad policies I believe were deliberately designed, are poised to push millions over a financial cliff and effect the large scale transfer of real property from private holders to Big Money. The CARES Act Fed free cash gifts are funding an insane inflation of house prices and rents that is only just beginning. I am deeply disturbed and appalled by scale of Government sponsored looting afflicting the US … and Richard Wolff believes that the Neoliberalism is running out of gas?

      Wolff seems to have confused Neoliberalism with some strange amalgam of Libertarianism and various schools of economics I can no longer distinguish from each other — Keynesian, New Keynesian, Classical, NeoClassical, Salt-Water, Fresh-Water, et al. — all of which Wolff seems to believe have an essential conflicts with Government regulation of the Economy. Neoliberalism is not laissez faire —
      “The neoliberals recognized early on that the creation of new markets is a political process, requiring the intervention of an organized power (Rodrigues, 2012, p.1008). History taught them that the political will to impose “good markets” resulted in a strong state and elaborate regulation; then, so be it.”
      “The real key to understanding modern economics is the absorption of the central tenet of markets as superior information processors within the heartland of cutting-edge microeconomics. By the turn of the millennium, the economics orthodoxy had become palpably more neoliberal, even though they themselves had little comprehension of that fact. This goes far to explain why some on the Left reflexively equate the economic orthodoxy with neoliberalism, in order to pronounce a pox on both their houses.”
      [“Philip Mirowski: This is Water, or Is It the Neoliberal Thought Collective?”, https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2016/05/philip-mirowski-this-is-water-or-is-it-the-neoliberal-thought-collective.html%5D

      1. skippy

        This seems to reflect the notion of synergies developing e.g. neo/new Keynesian with neo classical. But then again I’ve always viewed it as a sort of Councils of Nicea like process with with the State, power behind it, hammering out a operational manual all [power] can agree too …

        I’m with Lars on neo/new Keynesian’s being neo classical’s all but in name and in the past the Taylor rule …

        1. Christopher Horne

          Nicaea. They decided what was in or out of the Bible.
          At least until King James got into it, making the King the one
          and only receiver of God’s word.

          1. skippy

            The divinity aspect predates King James and is a strong reason the previous pagan rulers of Western Europe embraced it.

            Further the point above is during a recent conversation with some rusted on AET sort that had a wobbly about being lumped in with neoclassical until I showed them a CATO article that extolled the common ground both had and the advances they had made in Economic policy advocacy … albeit they had a few points of contention but hay …

      2. Kevin Carhart

        Thank you. For gosh sakes. The blinkeredness gives me a headache and these are Marxists I “grew up on”, on Real News, and Democracy Now and Harvey’s Capital talks. The dichotomy is dumb. Neoliberals want to embed things, take something that says “government” on the tin, and change its character. Marxists don’t want to know. Like (1) the health exchanges. It’s quasi-governmental, while making me have a deep experience with pricing and shopping when I visit and use their comparison-of-plans tools.

        And (2) Ilana Gershon describes the California government-based sessions for unemployed job searchers carrying out the job-searching condition for a UI claim.. (This story is actually ameliorated during covid when they severed the requirements. I thought I would have to go listen to this propaganda too as a UI claimant, but I didn’t. They’re restoring the requirement in July in CA.) So, representatives from Google at least on one occasion ran the meeting and pushed personal-branding theory on the workshoppers very hard. So is that government intervention or private business? Wolff misses, or doesn’t care about, anything that works on a person’s ideas rather than material questions.

        A government comet can have a neoliberal engine. The regular-person is sitting there imbibing a radical theory about what they must do and how they must conceive of themself in an entrepreneurial way. Prof. Wolff misses that the “intervention” in the form of money translates into projects that themselves push ideas. Depending what school of thought the ideas are from, it makes a massive difference.

        And the critique is not that new. This is Water is five years old, and Never Let a Serious Crisis is from 2013. Why are they so stubborn when Mirowski is ultimately being helpful in saying “The blinkeredness makes us lose! The blinkeredness makes us ineffectual!” Because of his tone of voice? Aaaaagh!

        If there is not a MIROWSKI-L listserv, so help me I am going to set up and run one myself.. shout out to Flora also, who linked to some stuff!

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Many of Mirowski’s papers seem to be available from http://www.academia.edu. You can sign up using your email address and download many of his papers. For now, that much is still a free service of that site.

  6. KD

    Instead of hierarchy, this alternative is a horizontal organization that makes all workplace participants equally powerful. Each has one vote to decide democratically what to produce, how and where, and what to do with the surplus or profits to which all workplace participants contributed.

    Its as if the Iron Law of Oligarchy did not exist. Hierarchies come into being because organizations need to centralize decision-making in order to effectively respond to conditions. You can look at the Spanish Civil War, with anarchist troops having to vote whether to fight battles, etc. versus the nationalist troops with a clear chain of command. Granted, the Stalinists ultimately took over the fighting for the Republican side (and its pretty clear why that happened) but it was too late. You can also look at Napoleon versus the perpetual and unstable European alliances against France. Granted these are geopolitical examples, but organization competing against other organizations in a capitalist economy, you have similar issues.

    None of this is intended to diminish “Workplace Democracy” as a sham to provide legitimacy to an actual hierarchical institution (compare “Diversity and Equity”) but as a serious organizational model, it is not.

    There is an issue with hierarchy in the private economy, in that large companies are often too cumbersome to seize market opportunities and react effectively to changing market conditions, and suffer when up against smaller, more nimble, rivals. The Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1980 is very different from 2020. I suspect but for the monopoly on violence feature, you would see similar turn over in national governments.

    The socialist literature is pretty solid in examining the limitations of the capitalist system, but when it goes pie-in-the-sky, it gets ridiculous. Rather than postulating “workplace democracy”, why don’t we just assume that thermodynamics doesn’t exist, and we can just get something for nothing? Thermodynamics is just a conspiracy invented by evil capitalist masters to maintain an illusion of scarcity?

    Rather than assuming you can create social institutions that contradict existing sociological observations, why not focus on improving existing social institutions? You have Chinese State Capitalism, you have American Neoliberalism. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can they be tweaked to produce a better outcome (for whom?).

    1. GramSci

      Thank you. Why not simply enact a maximum wage? FDR did it, and however imperfect, it conferred increasing material benefits on the workers until JFK (no traitor to his class) began to dismantle it by proposing to cut the top marginal rate from 91% to 70%.

      1. Noone from Nowheresville

        Wages are for workers. If there’s a maximum wage, there’s a way around it. If there’s a tax, there’s a way around it. Clawback is not the answer.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          There weren’t very many ways around it during the New Deal era. That’s why the rich class spent so many decades working to repeal and retire New Deal laws and rules and regulations. They legislated and ruled ” ways around it” back into existence.

          Those “ways around it” could be outlawed and shut down and closed off all over again, in theory. Whether they can or will be in fact remains to be seen.

          1. Noone from Nowheresville

            I agree with the In Theory bit.

            But how about we find a way to stop the unequal initial re-distribution of resources, monies, etc (which filters ever more quickly upwards) rather than trying to do clawback via taxes after the fact.

            We have articles and NC conversations about the Sackler family and the opioid crises. Great fortune. Great crimes. So many ruined lives, communities and deaths. The likelihood is that we won’t clawback much of that fortune. If we can’t do it here, what is the likelihood that we’ll clawback wealth in general (hey, Bill Gates, you’ve got too much land in the US), let alone the highest of incomes?

      2. Glen

        Bezos has already done that. His wage is about $85K per year. Most of his spending money is via unearned income.

    2. hunkerdown

      Leninists and their idée fixe of PMC lifestylism make the mutual ruin of the classes sound like a better outcome every day.

  7. HotFlash

    Why the Neoliberal Drive to Privatize Everything Is Running Out of Gas

    Running out of gas? I have not noticed this actually happening. I have for years been a huge fan of Prof Wolff, still am, but have to reluctantly admit that the few coops and/or WSDE’s that I have been involved with or known well are, ah, somewhat to seriously dysfunctional. Like democracy, it’s a great idea in theory, but very hard to implement and very easy to hijack, suborn, or corrupt. When I look at my local (chain) grocery store’s flyer, I see whole pages for Conagra and the few other food conglomerates. Much more detail on the consolidation of food production in the Lynn Fries/Pat Mooney post, exposing the current weapon of choice, the “multi stakeholder model”. Bill Gates owns how much farm land? Like the Vacuum Monster in Yellow Submarine, capitalism won’t stop until it has vacuumed up everything in its world.

    My (decidedly unprofessional) diagnosis is that we really, really, need to learn how to govern ourselves.

    Perhaps diptherio can give some guidance as to functional coops?

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Hotflash and KD, above, seemed to make the point that:

      a. organizational coherence (functional competency, effective goal-setting and focus, etc.) are absolutely indispensable to an entities’ ability to prevail in a marketplace (in life), and

      b. that “democracy” and “equality” have the undesirable side-effect of diffusing the organization’s performance enough as to make it fail in the marketplace

      Then Hotflash says “that we really, really, need to learn how to govern ourselves”.

      I’d like to drill into this notion, and ask “what competencies do individual humans often lack which serve to impede their ability to function effectively in a group?”. I see the key competencies of strong team play as the ability to:

      a. Identify and / or negotiate the confluence of interest between individual and group. Clearly define the give-get deal, and/or be emotionally and economically able to walk away if the deal’s not “worth it”
      b. Be what the team (group, org) needs. To actually, consistently deliver on individual’s end of the deal
      c. Effectively intervene – sans rancor / theatrics – when the deal isn’t working. Deals don’t usually last long; they have to flex

      Of course all this is perfectly obvious, and yet it doesn’t seem to happen very well.

      How many groups have you joined only to find out that a lot more got said than done, or politics happened and results didn’t?

      Bottom-up, “horizontal” groups are much harder to operate than hierarchies; the relationships are a mesh-pattern. More complexity, more ambiguity, more skill required.


      Another issue, and this one is relevant to the post about Top-down .vs. Bottom-up Ag.

      For-profit organizations that are happy with the extraction, one-time-use, externalize-the-enviro-degradation-costs model have much, much less work to accomplish than the organizations who espouse the mission to “fix the planet as they make a profit”.

      The “fixers” have way more work to do than the “extractors”.

      But the “extractors” set the price. Big-Box-Retailer X’s price for a box of tomatoes dictates what tomatoes sell for. Farmers’ market shoppers know what the BigBox price is, and are willing to pay, maybe, 20% more. Not 50% more, at least not on a sustained basis.

      “Fixers” have to be fueled by zealotry, and they have to be brilliant enough to do the extra work required to both make the product and fix the planet….and charge about the same price as the “extractors” do.

      This is what the people who want a different world are up against. We have to be really brilliant – organizationally, emotionally, technically…and we have to accept low pay and long hours in exchange.

      It points out the potential value of a culture than can pull off a “Long March”. Some problems are so big that they can swallow a few generations whole.

      1. redleg

        When Gresham’s dynamic and concentrated economic/political power are the problem, then destroying the bad actors and cartels is the only solution.
        Unfortunately, these problems (more like “this problem”, as the bad actors are generally the cartels, with a scant few exceptions that I’ve seen first-hand) have become THE basis for practically everything. Given that the oligarchs/plutarchs aren’t going to break up their own empires or even suddenly become ethical, I don’t see how change is possible (unless that change is even more bad actions and concentration, which I think is onhiong) without massive upheaval.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          OK, the selfish/shortsighted/sociopaths are a problem. And they aren’t going to break up themselves. We can agree on that.

          And possibly, we agree that “massive upheaval” from outside the model (e.g. a major calamity / systemic failure) is the likeliest exit-ramp from the current situation.

          Is that the only exit-ramp? No other mechanism for change exists?

        2. Christopher Horne

          After the battle of Agincourt, when the English killed something
          like a quarter of French nobility, France endured 50 years
          of organized banditry. You can still see the defensive city walls
          in many rural French towns. My point here being that an
          aristocracy does serve as a deterrent to various non-state actors
          seizing power in a vacuum. Most of Europe still has a legacy
          of ‘black money’- under the table to get telephones installed,
          contractors hired, etc. In other words, corruption for all.
          One undiscussed possibility is ‘corruption for all’.
          One could hardly cast aspersions on the moral failures of
          the upper classes if one were a habitual recipient of it
          as a member of the working class!

          1. Kouros

            Hmm, I haven’t thought about some of the potential consequences of full blown libertarianism…

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        If farmers market customers don’t want to pay 50% more for shinola tomatoes , then let them grow their own shinola tomatoes themselves by hand. And if they won’t do that, then let them buy their big box shit-tomatoes at the big box bargain price, and shut up and be happy.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          I’m not advocating for the happiness of the shinola-tomato customer, nor necessarily the shinola-tomato farmer.

          I’m advocating for the realistic assessment, on the part of the individual, of the situation we’re in.

          A decent “situational assessment” is useful it’s the first major step toward the formulation of viable alternatives.

          An important part of “situational assessment” is the notion of scale. It’s not effective to dig a mountain with a teaspoon.

          Btw, what is a “shinola-tomato”, anyway?


          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I am still getting used to my age making me something of a cultural relic in possession of antique knowledge.

            There used to be a brand of shoe polish back when people wore fancy leather shoes, called Shinola. It came in brown and black. The brown was a lovely deep fecal brown color.

            So there used to be a saying . . . ” he doesn’t know shit from Shinola”. Which was current in my youth.

            So I have taken to referring to shitfood versus shinola food. Shit tomatoes from Walmart or wherever. Shinola tomatoes from the farmers market.

            Younger people may want to create a more up-to-date word or phrase for that concept.

            1. Tom Pfotzer

              “I am still getting used to my age making me something of a cultural relic in possession of antique knowledge.”

              Yeah, I’ve got the same issue. I’m 64.

              Ya know, a while back I read a piece from you re: Bitcoin. I think it was you. You said something like “I won’t tolerate this (BTC) stupid. I won’t stand for it.”. I’m paraphrasing, but the basic notion was outrage, and it was high-voltage outrage.

              I really enjoyed that, dw. Emotion is some powerful stuff, and it’s probably the only really potent tool we have at the ready.

              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                Thank you for the kind words. Yes . . . . what I offered was the ” no crypto pledge”.

                I will not use crypto currency. And I will not tolerate those who do.

      3. Jeff W

        “what competencies do individual humans often lack which serve to impede their ability to function effectively in a group?”

        I think that’s an excellent question. I think I’d add “What behavioral factors (e.g., cognitive biases) serve to impede people’s abilities to function effectively in a group?”

        I have my own inchoate theory that humans, like other primates, tend to be very attuned to who’s up and who’s down in a hierarchical sense. That helps reinforce the dynamic that, often, “politics happen but results don’t.” (We can see a bit of that in the obsession with who’s “destroyed” or who’s “schooled” on YouTube, even though all that destruction and schooling seems to amount to, well, not much most of the time.) That doesn’t mean, to me, at least, that flatter structures are inevitably doomed to failure but simply that we have to account for that tendency to whatever degree that’s possible.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Human beings are a pack animal, not a herd animal or a social insect animal. I suspect our actual aptitudes only work well in groups small enough to be a pack . . . or a band.

          When human numbers went up to herd-amounts of humans, and then social-insect amounts of humans as of today, we have had to try functioning “like” herd animals and social insects as best we can. Wolf-pack aptitudes won’t help us function in the social insectoid civilizations of today.
          They could help us form and function in tiny little packs within our own odd little corners of the social insectoid civilizations of today.

          1. Christopher Horne

            Not quite. If humans were a simple ‘herd’ animal, life
            would be simple for pundits. Paleontologists refer to cromagnon man as ‘anatomically modern humans (AMH).
            What this means is that 200,000 years of evolution is not
            enough to distinguish modern humans from their ancestors.
            All the attributes of cave men still apply. Our genes are the
            same. That means that socially, we are still at the divide
            between individual behavior and herd mentality. Similarly.
            both optimists and pessimists are vital parts of our psyche.
            Imagine a tribal council in a crisis. The balance between
            the two types will determine decision outcomes- which
            will enable the tribe as a whole to prosper? The buffalo
            hunters of the 19th century shot the lead animal and then
            the rest of the herd just stood there waiting to be shot.
            Two years was all it took to bring them to near extinction.
            Whatever we are as humans, we are not that.

        2. Tom Pfotzer

          Jeff W: Yes. Agree. One of the things I notice about humans is the amount of effort and resources we devote to managing our relative social standing. It’s quite a lot.

          One big benefit of emotional development / introspection is that you can exempt yourself from the social-standing expenditures, and re-direct those resources toward higher-value targets.

          The cost – and there is a big cost – is that you don’t fit into most groups. So that means you either do without outward-in approbation/affirmation, or you change the group(s) you belong to. That’s what the “ability to walk away” notion was about.

  8. Hopium

    Yves, mixed feelings is more than adequate. What Wolff doesn’t take into account is that the current system is so centralized that it is managed by a such small group of people that it can be coordinated. Wolff talks about systems and therefore misses the fact that we are ruled by an oligarchy that can bail themselves out and feed themselves alm the time. For them there is zero crisis. On top of that, these oligarchs have total control of the violence power to suppress any uprising of people.
    Ontology is important after all.

  9. c_heale

    The origin of money is taxation, isn’t it? When people no longer want to pay their taxes a currency loses its value.

    1. Carla

      Origin of money is federal government spending. The government first spends money into existence, then taxes it back to achieve certain objectives. When capitalists control this process, the results are very good for the owners of capital (and their well-remunerated lackeys). When they’re good for anyone else, it’s purely accidental.

    2. tegnost

      I’d say the origin of money is trade,
      taxation is good for it’s regulatory and balancing impacts,
      these days it’s seen as a cudgel

    3. eg

      Taxation is coercive — the whole premise is “pay or else”

      The “wanting” is beside the point unless power relations shift in your favour

  10. Mikel

    I see profits privatized and losses socialized. No wins there.

    And the government in the USA is about maintaining the privatizion of profits for the GLOBAL elite. As time goes on, there is less and less particular preference for those born in the USA. It’s about aerving wealth no mattee where they aee from.
    It’s how you get Saudis in control of fresh water supplies in the USA.

    1. Kouros

      So you saying that the DoD and MIC is the creation of the global elite, and they all pinch in via USD circulation to maintain the muscle for the Oligarchy, always at the ready? And on the lookout for green pastures, like Russia’s resources and China’s new infrastructure and market?

  11. flora

    I don’t think it’s running out of steam. It’s more like it’s become so all encompassing world-wide (at least in the Western countries) that it’s ‘too big to see’. We have a hard time understanding how much the world oligarchs financially control democratic govts politicians and regulatory processes, control what gets funded and what does not get funded. We cannot see the forest for the trees. Neoliberalism isn’t running out of steam, it’s metastasizing. My 2 cents.

    1. David in Santa Cruz

      Just look at the increase in the number, share, and assets of billionaires during our past plague-year. Everything is going according to plan…

  12. Jim Young

    “Perhaps diptherio can give some guidance as to functional coops?”

    I was impressed by the the retired Graybar Electric Company veterans I met at the Riverside International Raceway museum back when it was open. It seems they thought all of us retirees (in my case, a Kodak subsidiary near it’s end), could afford $250,000 Corvette based limited production sports cars.

    I liked working for Kodak, but wish I’d known about Gray bar long before I retired.

  13. Jeff W

    To me, it seems like Richard Wolff is operating in a different frame here. He’s not really talking about “the system” being “rattled,”—even if the inevitable death of capitalism is one of his favorite themes. He’s talking about how we understand capitalism versus socialism. It’s about the “discourse,” the “debate.”

    The debate now isn’t “private versus public”—that debate is now “gone,” Wolff says, given the government intervention that’s gone on in the past twenty years. Now we can “refocus” on how the workplace is organized: “hierarchical-capitalist versus democratic-collectivist organizations of workplaces.”

    Of course, we can argue with Wolff’s contention that that debate is now “gone,” on the one hand, or take issue with his favored proposal, worker self-directed enterprises, on the other—several commenters are doing the latter—but I read his underlying point as being that the whole “government intervention”/“public vs. private” dispute was never where the debate should have been in the first place; it was always about—or should have been about—the organization of the workplace.

  14. Susan the other

    I could hear RW articulate every sentence. I always enjoy him. He gives me courage. But I’ll just say this about the whole merry-go-round of capitalism v. socialism. It’s like a Rubic’s Dodecahedron. At least 6 variables: democracy v. authority; private v. sovereign; horizontal v. vertical. I’m coming around to Varoufakis’ view that Labor should not be a “market.” Nor should Capital imo. Both labor and capital should be sovereign. Each should be part of a human-rights commons. Then, with a moral basis to our social-politics, we could go forward instead of in circles. RW is absolutely right that the system that wins should be the one that best addresses the needs of society. (And the environment – which can no longer be excluded from politics.) It sounds like socialism wins this one. But it really isn’t a contest at the most basic level because there is no point in serving the needs of “capital” since capital is in fact a social phenomenon. And blablablah.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      What does the expression “Both labor and capital should be sovereign” mean?

      I want to better understand your perspective.

      1. Susan the other

        I think sovereignty – a thing as useful as fiat – is under attack by the drive to privatize everything. So when it comes to a discussion about socialism v. capitalism we get nowhere fast because both systems are geared to competition and profit. The socialists less, maybe. So in order to make civilization maintain a balance among and between people and the environment we need some new paradigm that is more coherent than a circus. IMO sovereignty is the bedrock of democracy. Without sovereignty everyone starts swinging from a trapeze. Sovereignty, national sovereignty, is the basis for any constitution and a constitution is the basis for democracy. So, sovereignty first. And in the definition of sovereignty certain things have to be considered “inalienable” human rights. One should be a person’s labor – it should always earn a living wage and the benefits of medical care and retirement. Another is an express acknowledgement of both rights and responsibilities. We have rights for people which direct civilization – we need to acknowledge our responsibility to the environment and the planet. All that is part of the concept of sovereignty. As opposed to helter-skelter privatization and chaos. Imo. The thing that really needs to be pinned down is a definition of “private.”

        1. Susan the other

          It remains to be seen if “private capital” can survive the chaos of 8 billion degrees of freedom. Crypto currencies are attempting to do just that. It will be interesting. I’m just hoping it does not cause irreparable harm.

      2. amfortas the hippie

        read polanyi

        add land to what shouldnt be commodied for the other karls full monty

      3. Tom Pfotzer

        First, thanks to Susan the Other for the reply, and to Amfortas for the pointer to Polanyi.

        Here’s a cribbed definition for “sovereignty”:

        “Sovereignty, in political theory, the ultimate overseer, or authority, in the decision-making process of the state and in the maintenance of order. ” Source: http://www.britannica.com

        OK, sovereignty is societally-legitimized authority. “We are in command of ourselves, these are our rules, off we go”. Got it.

        Polanyi said – my paraphrase – that markets attempt to commoditize things like people and land, and those things really oughtn’t be commoditized, as they have valuable character and utility and traits that can’t be priced and smooshed around like so much homogenized peanut butter.

        And I agree with SusanTheOther’s assertion that socialism seems to win that round, if – and only if – said socialism includes the natural world in the commons and acts to preserve and protect and revel in all those unprofitable, un-commoditizable things that make the natural world so exquisitely valuable to (some of us) humans.

        So I get the idea that labor (humans) and land oughtn’t be commoditized. But what about capital? I’m not seeing the intrinsic magic of capital; I see it as a stack of Benjamins ($100 bill) in the safe, and all Benjamins look more or less the same.

        What’s sovereign about capital? How come that got included in the “magic beans which must not be commodified” list?”

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          Money making Money has always rubbed me wrong…long before i understood anything about economics.
          (it’s a holy cracker, nothing more)
          as far as sovereignty….
          delving into texas property law.
          trying to engineer some protection for the farm…dragging mom kicking and screaming.
          trust or llc or whatever.
          I fear medicaid clawbacks.
          among numerous other things.
          Turns out that “fee simple” is really just a modified Feudalism, where one never really owns “Real Property”, at all.
          my beat up trailer house suddenly jumped in “valuation”, from $3k to $16k.
          i missed it, due to the ongoing chaos in my life.
          dude said it was the algorithms fault.
          fixed this year.
          i asked the appraiser guy…”so why are we paying you?”
          I also asked him that if the Great God Market decided what my beat up trailer is worth…if I would have to actually PAY someone to haul the damned thing off, wasn’t that a Market Signal(holy) that the trailerhouse in question was worth some Negative amount?
          The God had obviously spoke.
          The chief appraiser was gobsmacked and totally speechless for a time….what could he say?
          Then he reverted to form…the state had decided that the great God could be denied his due, and that “mobile homes” could be “Worth” no less than $3K.
          I have no idea if this is true…and i don’t currently have any reason to make a big deal out of it…since the actual Tax Bill is like $100 a year, and i get a grader down this road on occasion for that amount.
          I quoted OW Holmes to the dude:”I like paying taxes…taxes are the fee i pay for Civilisation”.
          Just to let him know that i wasn’t one of the nutters he’s used to dealing with every day(It’s rural texas-wouldn’t want that job,lol)
          I just require fairness, and some transparency, and adhering to the justifications they use themselves.
          (i’ve paid them in feedsacks full of pennies, when they’ve screwed us before-I’m a known hardhead(Ariopsis felis))

        2. Susan the other

          Good question Tom. How did capital get commodified into just another magic bean? Well… here’s what I tell myself: Money has always accomplished 3 things: a store of wealth; a medium of exchange; a unit of account. All very useful things. But money itself evolved from what would now be considered “private” money – – personal hoards of tokens, beads and metal coins which became official units of exchange by consensus (everybody who had coins agreed to pay and receive them) and then evolved into bigger arenas, social organizations, states and nations. Lots of people had lots of needs. Money was minted to meet the needs and transactions were taxed for social projects. And money became so ubiquitous that it was no longer privately controlled. Money itself became an amazing organizational tool. So it gradually became what it is today: fiat. An artifact of social organization. People still have their “private” stash of money, their savings and investments, but money is now a function of a sovereign state and finance is run by those state rules. Money is now fiat. And the thing that makes money valuable is how it is spent. It’s a belated value: when money is well spent money itself becomes more valuable because everything else becomes more valuable. So it is in everyone’s best interest to spend money, which is a sovereign artifact, the best way possible to ensure all the good things, a clean environment; a healthy society. And blablablah. So my question is the hardest one: What does the word “private” mean – in this context?

  15. drumlin woodchuckles

    A lot of people who have “jobs” and “go to work” don’t want their workplaces turned into college-type bull-session circle jerks, much less the kind of sadistic Maoist ” self-criticism” and “struggle” sessions which
    the concept of the “democratic-collectivist” workplace is meant to create to the sole benefit of the kinds of tin pot maoist struggle-session circle-jerkers who know how to take control of settings like that.

    When I am done working, I want to go home. I don’t want to have to waste hours of my day after work giving my worshipful attention to maoist circle-jerk jockeys and sadistic little power-building operators. 8 hours a day is enough for me, thank you very much.

    1. J.

      Work is already high-school, mostly. That is unavoidable. The sadistic little power building operators adapt to any environment, Maoist or otherwise.

      You have Maoist types to thank, that you can even go home after only 8 hours a day.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        No I don’t. The Labor Union activists of the late 1800s to middle 1900s were not Maoist types.

        The Maoist types would bring us their version of Endless Brainwashing and Great Leap Famine. They did it in China. We would all get to be harangued about how we should all ” Learn from Tachai!”

        The workplace democracy hustlers want me to endure their little “political-democratic workplace” circle jerk festivals for hours after work each day, sitting through endless circle jerks about ” what will we decide to produce” and ” what will we decide to pay whom” and ” is Bob the Janitor woke enough?” and is Fran in the mailroom as anti-racist as DiAngelo would like.

        As I said before, 8 hours a day is enough. “Workplace democracy” would only create a whole fresh new field of forced waste of attention and loss of time. No thank you, thankyou very much.

      2. Christopher Horne

        High school is prison, to keep ‘youth’ off the streets during the day.
        The industrialists of the 19th century needed for their workers
        to have certain minimal skills in math, english, ‘civics’, etc.
        Now that the work force is globalized, they no longer require a basic
        education. But mobs of teenagers hanging out by the drug store-
        well, we all know what playgrounds ‘idle minds’ inhabit.
        Secondly, high schools create the narrow field of socialization
        between the sexes. On the plus side, driver’s ed is useful to
        a society as a whole- if the kids survive the learning process.

    2. Christopher Horne

      Ah. A modern person. Even as late as the 80’s, people regularly had a
      ‘third place’- a bar, a bowling alley, a bridge club,etc, “Cheers”, anybody?
      This is the missing piece of our culture which has been replaced by
      ‘cocooning’- why take the missus out dancing on a Saturday night,
      when the entertainment is as close as your remote. Movies? Too much bother to go to a theater. Promenading on Main St? A quaint literary
      reference from the 19th Century. Let me state plainly that whatever
      programming is on TV- WHATever programming is completely irrelevant.
      YOU are the product TV is selling to its advertisers. That’s why it’s
      ‘free’. So many ‘eyeballs’ per thousand viewers. Who’s a ‘surrender monkey’ now!

    3. Neroncito

      To suggest that work places were more democratic doesn’t mean consensus driven. There could still be leaders and representation, but in the end advocacy for the labor side of the equation. Who can argue with that?

      We get it–more meetings sounds hellish. But that’s not necessarily the case–in fact, maybe you’d be subjected to less BS meetings.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I hope you are wrong about ESOPs. Let some be created and tried to see how they do.

  16. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Simplest solution would be to repeal Clinton’s simple rule change that rentier compensation (of ALL kinds) greater than $1m can come from PRE-TAX corporate income, making them tax deductible and thus the sky’s the limit, and revert to the rule that it must come from POST-TAX profits.
    Only then will we see genuine concern from shareholders, etc. re corporate earnings.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      That would be one of a few things a legitimate new political party-movement trying to get started could run on.

      Or if a Pot Party movement could take over the DemParty the way the Tea Party movement took over the Rep Party, then we would have a Democratic Party again.

      Well . . . different people can try different approaches.

  17. Philip

    As there is so much socialism for the rich, when can we start calling them communists, red baiting them, cancelling them, and have the state make their lives miserable? After all they have been doing that to the left since the emergence of socialism. A dose of their own poison I say

    I have been doing it for awhile, it’s great fun as well, and really messes with the heads of the right wing apologists for greedy empire builders.

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