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Richard Wolff on the Greek Crisis, Austerity and a Post-Capitalist Future

Thursday, 15 January 2015 00:00 By Michael Nevradakis, Truthout | Interview
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A woman holds a Greek flag during a protest outside of the Greek Parliament building in Athens, Nov. 6, 2012. Greeks began two days of nationwide strikes on Tuesday to protest new austerity measures, which include further cuts to pensions, civil service salaries and social benefits. (Angelos Tzortzinis/The New York Times)A woman holds a Greek flag during a protest outside of the Greek Parliament building in Athens, November 6, 2012. Greeks began two days of nationwide strikes on Tuesday to protest new austerity measures, which include further cuts to pensions, civil service salaries and social benefits. (Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis / The New York Times)

In the following interview, New School professor and economist Richard Wolff provides his analysis of the causes of the economic crisis in Greece and in the eurozone, debunks claims that the Greek economy is recovering and offers his proposal for what a post-capitalist future could look like for Greece and the world.

Michael Nevradakis: Prior to the elections, we've heard talk about how the situation in Greece is turning around, that the economy is recovering. How do you respond to this?

Richard Wolff: I respond to it in the same way that I respond to this sort of report that periodically surfaces here in the United States. Here's the way that I would describe it. We have the worst economic downturn in the last 75 years, second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and we're not yet clear how long this one will last and how bad it will be, so it may even overtake the one in the 1930s; we just don't know.

"For the vast majority of people, there has been no recovery."

I would remind everyone that in the aftermath of the Great Depression, with the rise of Keynesian economics, we were told in the economics profession that we had learned the lessons, that we had the mechanisms, we had the research, we had the monetary and fiscal policies and the Keynesian economic theory behind it all to make sure that this kind of economic collapse, cutting this deep, lasting this long, would never happen again. The same people who assured us of that, through the 11 economic downturns that happened in the United States alone between the end of the Great Depression in 1941 and the beginning of this one in 2007, told us, "We have a downturn, but it's not so bad, and we have at least learned the lesson to avoid a really bad one." Well, now we have the really bad one too. So my first reaction to these conversations about having turned the corner is we're being told that by the exact same people with the exact same level of confidence with which they told us that we would not be in this situation in the first place.

The second thing I would say is this: There has been a recovery. There has been a recovery in the incomes and wealth of the 5 to 10 percent of many of the societies hit by the crisis; stock markets in many countries have recovered; corporate profits have recovered in some parts in both financial and non-financial industries - but for the vast majority of people, there has been no recovery. Unemployment is at record highs in many parts of the world. Even for those who have kept their jobs, their jobs have fewer benefits, lower degrees of security [and] children are having to forego education or rack up enormous debts to pay for it. Wherever we turn, the basic life condition of the mass of people is poorer than it was five and six years ago.

There is no recovery for the mass of people, and in the end, even those at the top cannot long enjoy a recovery that is denied to the masses below them, even though they refuse to face that reality and therefore suffer the continuation of this crisis. There is a recent report by a leading German economic research institute begging the European Central Bank to pump more money - quantitative easing, they call it - into the European economy to prevent a deflationary downward spiral. Those who are promising recovery [will continue] have a hard time explaining why a conservative economic research institute in Germany should reverse itself and be so anxiety-ridden that this economic downturn will continue for the future.

In your opinion, what led countries such as Greece into the crisis in the first place? Was it simply what we've been hearing in the media that these countries "lived beyond their means" or is there something more that you could point to?

The argument about living beyond their means is somewhere between offensive and silly. Most countries most of the time borrow, and borrow at an increasing pace. They are all "living beyond their means." And they've been doing it in many cases, including that of Greece, for quite a while. The question is not "do they do that?" because they all basically do. Let me remind you that over the last six years, the United States has virtually tripled its outstanding debt, [and] is living beyond its means on a scale that could not have been imagined before, so no one is in a position to argue that that's the problem. The United States is doing better than Europe even though it's borrowing more money than the Europeans.

"Goldman Sachs helped the Greeks to develop new kinds of accounting that could disguise or misrepresent parts of the borrowing that they were doing, or at least make people think it was less than it was before."

I think the issue in Greece, as elsewhere, has to be explained by a number of conditions that came together. The first problem in Greece was not that they were borrowing too much, but was rather that the lenders to Greece were no longer interested in lending to Greece the way they had been. Many of those lenders had actively pushed Greece into borrowing because they made huge fees off of the national debt of Greece, as they do of most countries. Goldman Sachs helped the Greeks to develop new kinds of accounting that could disguise or misrepresent parts of the borrowing that they were doing, or at least make people think it was less than it was before.

The biggest problem for Greece was the global economic collapse of 2008. Suddenly every major capitalist country, led by the United States, was having to ramp up its borrowing by the hundreds of billions of dollars, and what that meant was that every lender around the world, every bank, every insurance company, every typical lender to a government, suddenly had an immense increase in demand for loanable funds. Many of those borrowers, like the United States, had much higher credit ratings than the Greek government, for all kinds of reasons, and the result was that the lenders saw that they could lend all they want at much lower risk to desperate countries like the United States, trying to dig its way out of a crisis, and so they turned to the Greeks and said, "Why should we lend to you, who are a risk relative to lending to the United States, or Britain, or France, or Germany?" and suddenly the Greeks discovered that their lenders, particularly German and French banks, but others as well, had a more attractive borrower, and suddenly the terms for the Greeks became much more onerous. Interest rates rose, conditions became harsher and the long-standing pattern of borrowing in Greece was suddenly confronted by a serious change of heart of the traditional lenders.

The second thing, which is just as important, and again, it is true of all countries, not just Greece, is the peculiar political economy of capitalist countries. It works something like this: divide your population into two parts, the mass of working people, the overwhelming majority on the one hand, and the large businesses and the individual, rich 5 percent on the other. Each of these groups wants the government to provide them with all kinds of expensive services. Each of them, at the same time, wishes to pay the minimum possible tax burden on themselves, and each of them, using their relative resources, tries to get out of paying taxes. Big corporations and the rich, because of their resources, are able to hire the tax accounts, the lawyers, and they do a much better job of evading taxes than the mass of people.

"They dare not raise the taxes on the masses, because that will cost them votes. They dare not raise taxes on corporations and the rich, because that will make the corporations and the rich support their political opponents and their careers will be over."

What the mass of people can do is threaten politically to vote against anybody who raises taxes and for anybody who lowers them and are subject to that kind of persuasion. In any case, what happens in capitalist economies is then that the government and the politicians are placed in an impossible position. They dare not raise the taxes on the masses, because that will cost them votes. They dare not raise taxes on corporations and the rich, because that will make the corporations and the rich support their political opponents and their careers will be over. At the same time, they dare not displease either of the two groups by not providing them with the demanded services and supports and subsidies that they have come to assume.

So what does the government do in that situation? The answer is obvious: It borrows money. By borrowing money, they do not have to raise more in taxes from a population that doesn't want to pay it, and yet they can continue to spend to provide the services that the population demands. And finally, the rich are specifically pleased by this arrangement, because they're the ones who do the bulk of the lending to the government. So they are able to avoid taxation, in which they would have to give money to the government, end of the story, and instead, substitute loans to that government, precisely because they didn't pay the taxes. And that money has to be returned by government to corporations and the rich, and on top of it, paying them interest all the while.

So the corporations and the rich find this a very attractive arrangement; the mass of people continues to get services without having their taxes raised. Everybody wins, ironically, while the government continues to raise more money in debt. To then blame the government as "living beyond its means," or to not see this mechanism, but somehow to ascribe all of this to some character flaw of people is to make it a personal failing rather than to understand it as a structural and economic arrangement whose irrationality speaks to the absurdity of how capitalist economies are organized and not to some individual failing.

What was the role of the euro as a currency, and the eurozone and its policies, in creating the conditions that led countries such as Greece, and some of the other southern European countries, into this crisis?

I think that the euro, like the whole project of European unification, appealed to all kinds of different groups for all kinds of different reasons. And this produced the kind of coalition that was able to push it through, to realize the European community, to realize the single currency, and so on. But I do believe that the different parts of the coalition that came together to produce it had very different agendas and very different capabilities for realizing their agendas. And the result was that the agendas of some were more than satisfactorily realized, and the agendas of others - partly out of miscalculation, partly out of being swept up in a kind of euphoria - these other folks pushed for a reality which has disappointed their hopes.

"So it was a clever move by the Germans; it created for them an unbelievably profitable opportunity to export to the rest of Europe, to indeed move production from countries like Greece and Portugal and Spain back to Germany."

Let me give you an example: Germany on the one hand, Greece on the other. For the Germans, the development of a single currency and a single European market was a dream come true. They knew that their domestic situation, the workers' councils that mediate the relationship between labor and capital, the ability of that relationship to keep prices from rising and to give workers job guarantees in exchange for not pushing wages up and to get the corporations to agree not to raise prices, meant that as Europe came together and as most other countries used the conversion of their local currency into the euro as an opportunity to really raise prices, the Germans would be in the end the most competitive economy. Not because they are technically more proficient, but because their domestic increase in prices was kept under control, while everywhere else, the euphoria of the common market and currency led businesses and unions to push up prices and wages. So it was a clever move by the Germans; it created for them an unbelievably profitable opportunity to export to the rest of Europe, to indeed move production from countries like Greece and Portugal and Spain back to Germany or to Germany in the first place, to take advantage of the price advantage that German domestic capitalism was able to achieve.

In contrast, a country like Greece, or many of the southern European countries, had a completely different idea. They imagined, in the classic mistake of conventional bourgeoisie economics, that they would benefit by a common currency and a common market because their wages were already lower than those in France, in Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, because they were a friendly-to-business climate, and they had this fantastic notion that the French, the Germans and the others would stand by while their economies were emptied out of manufacturing and other producers who would move instead to take advantage of lower wages within a common economy in the south of Europe. The terrible mistake there had two parts: First, they didn't understand that the Germans were not about to let that happen, and were busy taking a whole host of steps to make sure that not only did German industries not leave Germany for the south of Europe, but in fact, the reverse was happening, because of the price advantage that I have explained.

And the second mistake the southern Europeans made, including the Greeks, was not to understand that if capitalist enterprises in high-wage parts of Europe, Western Europe and Northern Europe in particular, if they were going to incur the expense of leaving, of moving production, they weren't going to go to Greece and Portugal and Spain. They were going to go to Asia and Africa, which is not that much further but much, much cheaper. Therefore, they're not going to stop halfway in a place like Greece or Portugal; they're going to go much further. In other words, the Greeks didn't understand the larger picture of capitalists moving, particularly to Asia, secondarily to Latin America, and finally to Eastern Europe and Africa, which is a major process of the last 50 years. [They didn't understand] how important that is, and how the competition the Europeans face from the Asian businesses, but also from the United States, which is doing this on a major scale, means that they cannot afford to stop in Greece. So the Greeks thought they would get an advantage, but they made a mistake and pushed for something that wouldn't bring them an advantage and in fact brought an advantage to the Germans and others at the expense of the Greeks, and that is why the experience of unity is so bitterly different for the different parts of Europe, even to the point of threatening the ability of the unity to survive.

Why do you believe there has been such an insistence on austerity on the part of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?

I think they understand that they really have, particularly in their framework, no choice. This is hard, I know, particularly in Greece where I've tried to explain it in the past. Their fear, which is a very real fear - I meet with bankers here in New York all the time and I know what I'm talking about - their fear is that countries such as Greece and Portugal will succumb to the pressures of the mass of their people to do something drastic. And drastic means withdrawing from the European Union and trying some other way of proceeding, or, and perhaps I should say and/or, to radically alter their economic systems inside, by basically radically changing the organization of enterprises, the distribution of wealth and income, in order to pursue a radically different economic trajectory, one focused on national rebuilding, one which limits drastically the freedom of capital and enterprise to move and to make investment decisions regardless of the impact on the local economy.

"Your best option is to join with us, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the European Community, Germany, France, England and so on, in an alliance, and that alliance is going to try to get you through this situation by shifting the burden of this economic collapse onto the mass of your people."

They're very afraid of that. And so what they've decided to do is a different kind of strategy: to try to appeal to the wealthy and to the leaders, the traditional elites of these countries, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, to say look, you're in danger of a wholesale transformation in your own country that will seriously jeopardize everything that you have accomplished and everything you own, and that your best option is to join with us, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the European Community, Germany, France, England and so on, in an alliance, and that alliance is going to try to get you through this situation by shifting the burden of this economic collapse onto the mass of your people. Tell them a story that their only way out is to become "competitive" and that the only way to become competitive is to lower wages, to lower taxes and to lower the public services that are paid for out of taxes. To basically go back 10, 20, 30, 40 years, maybe even more than that, to standards of livings that the Europeans thought they had left far behind, and basically in that way, slowly persuade some businesses to settle in your countries [that] wouldn't have thought of it before - make the wages and the social conditions so poor that you really do become a competitor of an Asia whose wages and taxes are rising, of a Latin America whose wages and taxes are rising; they're going up, you come down, and at some point, you'll be able to get an advantage. That is the real political economy that is being presented here.

And I think the wealthy, the top corporate leaders of Greece and of Portugal, have understood that they will be better off, as they see it, in an alliance with international capital reorganizing their own economies to become "competitive" slowly, than to not cut that deal, to have their own economies go through internal convulsions, where their positions as traditional political elites, as the owners of the means of production and as the wealthy could very well dissolve in an uprising of either the left or the right or even some combination of them, focused on a national development program that does not give the privileges that have continued to be taken by the elites in those countries.

Have austerity policies like the ones being implemented now in Greece, or the types of policies that are typically championed by the IMF, ever succeeded in helping a country recover from an economic crisis?

The people who make these arguments are also the people who commission and pay for the evaluations. So the answer is: It depends on your point of view. Are there examples that the IMF points to in which austerity drove down taxes and drove down prices and drove down wages in some way that they were followed by upturns in economic well-being? Yes. But of course, the critics point out that wasn't because of austerity; it was for other reasons, or it might even have been despite austerity. It's a little bit like pointing, for example, to Argentina, pointing out that they defaulted on their national debt, ended up paying 50 or 60 cents on the dollar many years later, and yet in the aftermath of that, until recently, they had a pretty good boom going, so they could claim that gee, you know, defaulting is not only not bad, it's good for your economic development, but the critics would quickly point out that Argentina benefitted from other things, that its well-being was not because of but despite the default etc., etc.

"The wealthy and the business community went to work, with their resources and their business connections, to make sure that they didn't pay the price."

Here's the bottom line: What austerity is about is shifting the burden of an economic crisis from one part of the population to another. The mass of Greek people did not force [Andreas] Papandreou to borrow money. The mass of the Greek people didn't know about or have much to do with fiscal policy at the national level. In fact, governments, bankers, leading industrialists, ship builders, the major players of the Greek economy, got together, as their counterparts did elsewhere, to produce the decisions that then, in the wake of the international collapse of capitalism, became unsupportable, producing a crisis in Greece. Once that had happened, there was only one question left: Who was going to pay the cost of all the debt we've run up or all the production decisions we've made that have left us without the capacity to export, with a dependence on imports etc.?

And at that point, as has happened in every country - Greece is in no way unique - the wealthy and the business community went to work, with their resources and their business connections, to make sure that they didn't pay the price. OK, then there were only two other options: If the rich and the wealthy and the corporations don't pick up the cost of the crisis, then either foreign institutions will, like the European Central Bank and IMF and European Commission, or your own mass of your people. Austerity is the explanation that it's going to be put on the mass of the people, and your own rich folks, your corporations, together with the international organizations, will make sure that happens. When they're asked why, in a period of economic suffering, you would make the mass of people, who didn't cause the crisis and who are already suffering its consequences, why you would make them pay even more in an austerity, you can't possibly say, in any kind of honest discourse, well, somebody has to pay and we're not going to do it and the international institutions are not going to do it, so it's got to be the masses.

You can't say that, so here's what you say: You tell a story that yes, this austerity is terribly painful, but there really is no option because the only way out of this crisis is to become "competitive" as a locus of production, "competitive" in terms of the prices of your outputs on the world market, and to get those prices down, and to get production to come here, we have to offer capital internationally very low wages and very low taxes. So you shift the burden of the crisis, which is the point, on to the masses of people, while telling a story which you hope that the media and the professors of economics will take seriously, that this is not only the best way to solve the problem, but the only way. None of that is true, but it is the best face they can put on the cost-shifting purpose that austerity serves.

Do you believe that Greece should remain in the eurozone or should it perhaps return to a domestic currency, and how could Greece even depart from the eurozone and rebuild its economy with its own currency?

Well, I think the Greeks have to make a decision. And again, this is not unique to Greece at all. The Portuguese have to make this decision; the Spanish have to make this decision, the Italians and so on. And this decision is really more, in my judgment, about the organization of the economy inside your country. The major question isn't your relationship to the rest of the world. The major question is your relationship to yourself. What is the Greek population going to do? If you continue to permit your huge private companies, shipbuilding and others, and your private banks, to conduct business as usual, to pay the salaries that they do, to give the perks that they do, to organize public policy by working through these people as the crucial middlemen between what the government does and what the larger society and economy had as conditions, then you're stuck. Then you are either going to knuckle under in the form of austerity, or go through basically another kind of austerity, which is what you would face if you quit the euro, if you went back to the drachma [Greece's currency before the euro], if you went back to an independent economy; you'd have to devalue something awful; all your input costs will go crazy; you'd have domestic trouble of the sort you haven't seen in Greece since the Second World War.

"We have, in the United States, the equivalent of Greece. They're called our destroyed major cities."

But that's all premised on [leaving the] economy in the basic structure; all the key decisions are made by the major shareholders and boards of directors of leading Greek enterprises. They have long ago figured out how to keep the government from playing a role that threatens them. If you leave all of that intact, and that's a fundamental political and ideological condition, then you're going to face an indeterminate period of time of real economic decline. The decline of Greece as a society, the decline of cities like Athens and Piraeus and all of them, and you're going to become one of the corners of Europe that will be looked upon as [a disaster]. It will be blamed on something in the Greek character, the way you have already seen that done.

Let me warn you, because the United States should be a picture for you to think about: We have, in the United States, the equivalent of Greece. They're called our destroyed major cities. I'm going to pick the most dramatic example, but it is to the United States what Greece is becoming to Europe. The city I have in mind is Detroit, Michigan. Forty years ago it was the center of the automobile industry. Detroit had a population of 2 million people. It was high working-class incomes, highly trade-union organized workers, the United Auto Workers; they produced new music, Motown rock 'n' roll that swept the entire globe as a new kind of culture. They were an economic, political and cultural mecca, a powerhouse, a success story of modern capitalism. That was in 1970.

"We have in these areas people, populations as big as Greece, suffering unspeakable, unimaginable long-term economic decline with no end in sight. That is the future of other cities in the United States, and I believe it is the future of Greece."

So here we are, 40 years later, [and] what have we got? The population of Detroit is now 690,000 people. That is, an overwhelming majority of the people left the city; they left behind their homes; they left behind their families; they left behind the schools. The city of Detroit is a wasteland. The majority of its housing is empty. There are fires in large parts of the city every day as abandoned houses go up. One of the largest problems in Detroit today is wild dogs - 50,000 dogs. Why? Because the city of Detroit has no money, so it can't hire dog wardens, the people who catch dogs if they don't have an owner and get them off the street. Millions of people can't afford to keep a dog, so they simply let him go, and so what we have is wild dogs roaming the street. I didn't make any of this up. In a very short time, Detroit became a wasteland. The city declared bankruptcy [in 2013] and is now administered by state officials who are all white, in a city that is overwhelmingly black. So you have the economic collapse laid over a racial divide. It is a disaster. Cleveland, Ohio, same thing. Camden, New Jersey, same thing. Youngstown, Ohio, same thing. We have in these areas people, populations as big as Greece, suffering unspeakable, unimaginable long-term economic decline with no end in sight. That is the future of other cities in the United States, and I believe it is the future of Greece.

In a peculiar way, it is even easier in Europe to do it to a whole country, like Greece, than it is to do it to randomly selected cities in the Midwest, the way we do it here in the United States. But if nothing is done to change the internal logic of capitalist development, there is no reason to believe this is going to change anytime soon. Greek wages are not going to go to the level of Indian or Vietnamese or Chinese wages, not for a long time, and those countries are busy using their accumulated wealth to hold on to their industries. They're not going to quickly make capital movable elsewhere. The Greeks have to take control of their own economic possibilities, radically change the way wages and prices are calculated, [and] become "competitive" not by lowering wages but by lowering profits and the returns to capital. That's the way to go, to invest in your own country. Yes, is there a little bit of autarchy here? For sure. But the alternative is to be part of a division of labor on a global scale that assigns to Greece, as it has assigned the same thing to Detroit, and I don't believe the Greek people want or deserve to be put into that situation for decades to come.

In essence, you've made the argument that we should be looking toward a post-capitalist future, not just in Greece but worldwide. What would this post-capitalist future look like and how could it be accomplished?

Yes, you have understood me perfectly well, but let me make one final point about that. In one of my recent radio programs, I talked about billionaires because we have a very useful statistical service here in the United States that keeps track of billionaires, and your [readers] might also be interested to know that we have about 1,600 or 1,700 billionaires in the world. If you put them together, they own together, these 1,600 or 1,700 individuals in the world, as much as the bottom half of the entire population of this planet, some 3 to 3.5 billion people. OK, for me, this conversation about capitalism is over. Any economic system that produces 1,600 billionaires who can together dispose of an equal amount of the property of this planet as the lower half, 3.5 billion people, is an economic system that no longer justifies anyone's support other than those 1,700. Them, I could understand. But this is a system whose success in increasing output is completely offset by its absolutely obscene distribution of wealth, which makes the pharaohs of ancient Egypt look like nothing in comparison. So for me, going beyond capitalism is what we call in the United States a "no brainer." It is something that is, or should be, instant, immediate and obvious.

To repeat your question, what do you put in its place? Well, for me, the answer is not the traditional socialist focus on collective ownership of the means of production, state enterprise, nor is it substituting government planning for the market, and I will tell you why. I think, after many efforts have been made, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam and so on, I think it's clear that whatever the achievements of state ownership and planning over private ownership and markets, that proved insufficient. It did not provide a society which the mass of people will see as a desirable, new post-capitalist system to go to, and indeed, those societies were not even able to preserve public ownership and planning, since most of them have more or less collapsed and fallen back to private ownership and markets.

"We have to convert from capitalistically organized enterprises into worker cooperative enterprises."

So what is then the missing link? What can we learn from the successes and failures of traditional socialism so that we can better define where we need to go next? And for me, the answer is to understand that we have to transform the organization of enterprises. That is, all of those institutions, whether we call them a company or a firm or an entrepreneur, whatever we want, the way we organize the production of goods and services, the factories, the offices, the stores that produce the goods and services we depend on, they have to be drastically altered.

The way we have it now, the capitalist way, puts a tiny number of people in the position of making all of the decisions. Most business in capitalist societies is done by corporations. Corporations have what are called major shareholders, usually a group of 10 or 20 people who own enough shares to be the determining votes on all matters of the corporation. One of the things that shares decide is the board of directors, usually a group of 10 to 20 people who make all the basic, day-to-day decisions: what to produce, how to produce, where to produce and what to do with the profits. So we have organized production so that all the key decisions are made by a tiny group of people, literally 20 to 30 people, at the top of a pyramid. The vast majority of workers, production workers, white-collar workers, services, manufacturing, whatever, are excluded systematically from participation in those decisions. If it's a private enterprise, it's organized the way I just described.

And when the state takes it over, as in the Soviet Union, you still have the gap between the mass of people who do the work and the tiny group who make the decisions, but what has changed is that the tiny group is state officials put there by the government or the Communist Party or whatever ruling groups there are, but you still have an organization that juxtaposes a small group of decision-makers at the top, and a vast mass of workers excluded from those decisions practically and in actuality at the other end. And my argument is, therein lies the crucial problem. If we want economic production of goods and services to serve the people in each community or in each nation, then we have to put the people who are to be served in the decision-making position. To make a long story short, we have to convert from capitalistically organized enterprises into worker cooperative enterprises.

Let me, in a very brief way, give you an idea of what this would mean. If a factory wishes to close its businesses in Thessaloniki or its businesses in Cincinnati, Ohio, or in Chicago, or in Lyon, France, or in Dusseldorf, Germany, it would have to be a decision made by all of the workers there together. One worker, one vote, democratically. In that case, guess what? The factory wouldn't leave; the workers wouldn't do that because they don't want to move to China or to some other place and have a job. The whole mobility of production would have to be organized in a completely different way if workers are to participate and to do such a thing.

"The single most important cause of unequal wealth and income is the distribution of enterprise profits."

Let me give you another example: If the profits are distributed democratically - in other words, if all of the profits distributed are distributed by all of the people whose labor helped to produce those profits, namely all the workers, then guess what? They're not going to give a wildly disproportionate share of the profits to shareholders as dividends, just like they're not going to give a few top executives huge pay packages while the average worker cannot afford to send his kid to school, cannot afford a decent vacation etc. The single most important cause of unequal wealth and income is the distribution of enterprise profits. If we change corporations from the major shareholders deciding on the board of directors and therefore giving the bulk of the profits to themselves, and instead make that a democratic decision, we will have a much less unequal distribution of net revenues in corporations, and consequently, this will be the most serious, sustained and effective assault toward a direction of less inequality than anything that has been tried in the past. Instead of struggling in every society over the redistribution of income, by converting to worker co-ops, we wouldn't distribute it so unequally in the first place, and that would obviate any need for redistribution.

I could go on, but my answer is this: What we need to do in addition to social ownership of means of production and proper planning for the economic outcomes we want, is we need to democratize enterprises, to finally say goodbye to the capitalist organization of enterprises that has subordinated all of the decisions that enterprises make, that impact the politics, the culture of the whole society, have subordinated those to what is privately profitable rather than what is socially desirable and sustainable. This has driven us to an impossible situation, and whether we look at it environmentally by the degradation of nature that these corporations have done, or we look at it in terms of social inequality, the time to go beyond capitalism is obvious - it's now, and it's long overdue.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Michael Nevradakis

Michael Nevradakis is a Ph.D. student in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin and a US Fulbright Scholar presently based in Athens, Greece. Michael is also the host of Dialogos Radio, a weekly radio program featuring interviews and coverage of current events in Greece.


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Richard Wolff on the Greek Crisis, Austerity and a Post-Capitalist Future

Thursday, 15 January 2015 00:00 By Michael Nevradakis, Truthout | Interview
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A woman holds a Greek flag during a protest outside of the Greek Parliament building in Athens, Nov. 6, 2012. Greeks began two days of nationwide strikes on Tuesday to protest new austerity measures, which include further cuts to pensions, civil service salaries and social benefits. (Angelos Tzortzinis/The New York Times)A woman holds a Greek flag during a protest outside of the Greek Parliament building in Athens, November 6, 2012. Greeks began two days of nationwide strikes on Tuesday to protest new austerity measures, which include further cuts to pensions, civil service salaries and social benefits. (Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis / The New York Times)

In the following interview, New School professor and economist Richard Wolff provides his analysis of the causes of the economic crisis in Greece and in the eurozone, debunks claims that the Greek economy is recovering and offers his proposal for what a post-capitalist future could look like for Greece and the world.

Michael Nevradakis: Prior to the elections, we've heard talk about how the situation in Greece is turning around, that the economy is recovering. How do you respond to this?

Richard Wolff: I respond to it in the same way that I respond to this sort of report that periodically surfaces here in the United States. Here's the way that I would describe it. We have the worst economic downturn in the last 75 years, second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and we're not yet clear how long this one will last and how bad it will be, so it may even overtake the one in the 1930s; we just don't know.

"For the vast majority of people, there has been no recovery."

I would remind everyone that in the aftermath of the Great Depression, with the rise of Keynesian economics, we were told in the economics profession that we had learned the lessons, that we had the mechanisms, we had the research, we had the monetary and fiscal policies and the Keynesian economic theory behind it all to make sure that this kind of economic collapse, cutting this deep, lasting this long, would never happen again. The same people who assured us of that, through the 11 economic downturns that happened in the United States alone between the end of the Great Depression in 1941 and the beginning of this one in 2007, told us, "We have a downturn, but it's not so bad, and we have at least learned the lesson to avoid a really bad one." Well, now we have the really bad one too. So my first reaction to these conversations about having turned the corner is we're being told that by the exact same people with the exact same level of confidence with which they told us that we would not be in this situation in the first place.

The second thing I would say is this: There has been a recovery. There has been a recovery in the incomes and wealth of the 5 to 10 percent of many of the societies hit by the crisis; stock markets in many countries have recovered; corporate profits have recovered in some parts in both financial and non-financial industries - but for the vast majority of people, there has been no recovery. Unemployment is at record highs in many parts of the world. Even for those who have kept their jobs, their jobs have fewer benefits, lower degrees of security [and] children are having to forego education or rack up enormous debts to pay for it. Wherever we turn, the basic life condition of the mass of people is poorer than it was five and six years ago.

There is no recovery for the mass of people, and in the end, even those at the top cannot long enjoy a recovery that is denied to the masses below them, even though they refuse to face that reality and therefore suffer the continuation of this crisis. There is a recent report by a leading German economic research institute begging the European Central Bank to pump more money - quantitative easing, they call it - into the European economy to prevent a deflationary downward spiral. Those who are promising recovery [will continue] have a hard time explaining why a conservative economic research institute in Germany should reverse itself and be so anxiety-ridden that this economic downturn will continue for the future.

In your opinion, what led countries such as Greece into the crisis in the first place? Was it simply what we've been hearing in the media that these countries "lived beyond their means" or is there something more that you could point to?

The argument about living beyond their means is somewhere between offensive and silly. Most countries most of the time borrow, and borrow at an increasing pace. They are all "living beyond their means." And they've been doing it in many cases, including that of Greece, for quite a while. The question is not "do they do that?" because they all basically do. Let me remind you that over the last six years, the United States has virtually tripled its outstanding debt, [and] is living beyond its means on a scale that could not have been imagined before, so no one is in a position to argue that that's the problem. The United States is doing better than Europe even though it's borrowing more money than the Europeans.

"Goldman Sachs helped the Greeks to develop new kinds of accounting that could disguise or misrepresent parts of the borrowing that they were doing, or at least make people think it was less than it was before."

I think the issue in Greece, as elsewhere, has to be explained by a number of conditions that came together. The first problem in Greece was not that they were borrowing too much, but was rather that the lenders to Greece were no longer interested in lending to Greece the way they had been. Many of those lenders had actively pushed Greece into borrowing because they made huge fees off of the national debt of Greece, as they do of most countries. Goldman Sachs helped the Greeks to develop new kinds of accounting that could disguise or misrepresent parts of the borrowing that they were doing, or at least make people think it was less than it was before.

The biggest problem for Greece was the global economic collapse of 2008. Suddenly every major capitalist country, led by the United States, was having to ramp up its borrowing by the hundreds of billions of dollars, and what that meant was that every lender around the world, every bank, every insurance company, every typical lender to a government, suddenly had an immense increase in demand for loanable funds. Many of those borrowers, like the United States, had much higher credit ratings than the Greek government, for all kinds of reasons, and the result was that the lenders saw that they could lend all they want at much lower risk to desperate countries like the United States, trying to dig its way out of a crisis, and so they turned to the Greeks and said, "Why should we lend to you, who are a risk relative to lending to the United States, or Britain, or France, or Germany?" and suddenly the Greeks discovered that their lenders, particularly German and French banks, but others as well, had a more attractive borrower, and suddenly the terms for the Greeks became much more onerous. Interest rates rose, conditions became harsher and the long-standing pattern of borrowing in Greece was suddenly confronted by a serious change of heart of the traditional lenders.

The second thing, which is just as important, and again, it is true of all countries, not just Greece, is the peculiar political economy of capitalist countries. It works something like this: divide your population into two parts, the mass of working people, the overwhelming majority on the one hand, and the large businesses and the individual, rich 5 percent on the other. Each of these groups wants the government to provide them with all kinds of expensive services. Each of them, at the same time, wishes to pay the minimum possible tax burden on themselves, and each of them, using their relative resources, tries to get out of paying taxes. Big corporations and the rich, because of their resources, are able to hire the tax accounts, the lawyers, and they do a much better job of evading taxes than the mass of people.

"They dare not raise the taxes on the masses, because that will cost them votes. They dare not raise taxes on corporations and the rich, because that will make the corporations and the rich support their political opponents and their careers will be over."

What the mass of people can do is threaten politically to vote against anybody who raises taxes and for anybody who lowers them and are subject to that kind of persuasion. In any case, what happens in capitalist economies is then that the government and the politicians are placed in an impossible position. They dare not raise the taxes on the masses, because that will cost them votes. They dare not raise taxes on corporations and the rich, because that will make the corporations and the rich support their political opponents and their careers will be over. At the same time, they dare not displease either of the two groups by not providing them with the demanded services and supports and subsidies that they have come to assume.

So what does the government do in that situation? The answer is obvious: It borrows money. By borrowing money, they do not have to raise more in taxes from a population that doesn't want to pay it, and yet they can continue to spend to provide the services that the population demands. And finally, the rich are specifically pleased by this arrangement, because they're the ones who do the bulk of the lending to the government. So they are able to avoid taxation, in which they would have to give money to the government, end of the story, and instead, substitute loans to that government, precisely because they didn't pay the taxes. And that money has to be returned by government to corporations and the rich, and on top of it, paying them interest all the while.

So the corporations and the rich find this a very attractive arrangement; the mass of people continues to get services without having their taxes raised. Everybody wins, ironically, while the government continues to raise more money in debt. To then blame the government as "living beyond its means," or to not see this mechanism, but somehow to ascribe all of this to some character flaw of people is to make it a personal failing rather than to understand it as a structural and economic arrangement whose irrationality speaks to the absurdity of how capitalist economies are organized and not to some individual failing.

What was the role of the euro as a currency, and the eurozone and its policies, in creating the conditions that led countries such as Greece, and some of the other southern European countries, into this crisis?

I think that the euro, like the whole project of European unification, appealed to all kinds of different groups for all kinds of different reasons. And this produced the kind of coalition that was able to push it through, to realize the European community, to realize the single currency, and so on. But I do believe that the different parts of the coalition that came together to produce it had very different agendas and very different capabilities for realizing their agendas. And the result was that the agendas of some were more than satisfactorily realized, and the agendas of others - partly out of miscalculation, partly out of being swept up in a kind of euphoria - these other folks pushed for a reality which has disappointed their hopes.

"So it was a clever move by the Germans; it created for them an unbelievably profitable opportunity to export to the rest of Europe, to indeed move production from countries like Greece and Portugal and Spain back to Germany."

Let me give you an example: Germany on the one hand, Greece on the other. For the Germans, the development of a single currency and a single European market was a dream come true. They knew that their domestic situation, the workers' councils that mediate the relationship between labor and capital, the ability of that relationship to keep prices from rising and to give workers job guarantees in exchange for not pushing wages up and to get the corporations to agree not to raise prices, meant that as Europe came together and as most other countries used the conversion of their local currency into the euro as an opportunity to really raise prices, the Germans would be in the end the most competitive economy. Not because they are technically more proficient, but because their domestic increase in prices was kept under control, while everywhere else, the euphoria of the common market and currency led businesses and unions to push up prices and wages. So it was a clever move by the Germans; it created for them an unbelievably profitable opportunity to export to the rest of Europe, to indeed move production from countries like Greece and Portugal and Spain back to Germany or to Germany in the first place, to take advantage of the price advantage that German domestic capitalism was able to achieve.

In contrast, a country like Greece, or many of the southern European countries, had a completely different idea. They imagined, in the classic mistake of conventional bourgeoisie economics, that they would benefit by a common currency and a common market because their wages were already lower than those in France, in Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, because they were a friendly-to-business climate, and they had this fantastic notion that the French, the Germans and the others would stand by while their economies were emptied out of manufacturing and other producers who would move instead to take advantage of lower wages within a common economy in the south of Europe. The terrible mistake there had two parts: First, they didn't understand that the Germans were not about to let that happen, and were busy taking a whole host of steps to make sure that not only did German industries not leave Germany for the south of Europe, but in fact, the reverse was happening, because of the price advantage that I have explained.

And the second mistake the southern Europeans made, including the Greeks, was not to understand that if capitalist enterprises in high-wage parts of Europe, Western Europe and Northern Europe in particular, if they were going to incur the expense of leaving, of moving production, they weren't going to go to Greece and Portugal and Spain. They were going to go to Asia and Africa, which is not that much further but much, much cheaper. Therefore, they're not going to stop halfway in a place like Greece or Portugal; they're going to go much further. In other words, the Greeks didn't understand the larger picture of capitalists moving, particularly to Asia, secondarily to Latin America, and finally to Eastern Europe and Africa, which is a major process of the last 50 years. [They didn't understand] how important that is, and how the competition the Europeans face from the Asian businesses, but also from the United States, which is doing this on a major scale, means that they cannot afford to stop in Greece. So the Greeks thought they would get an advantage, but they made a mistake and pushed for something that wouldn't bring them an advantage and in fact brought an advantage to the Germans and others at the expense of the Greeks, and that is why the experience of unity is so bitterly different for the different parts of Europe, even to the point of threatening the ability of the unity to survive.

Why do you believe there has been such an insistence on austerity on the part of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?

I think they understand that they really have, particularly in their framework, no choice. This is hard, I know, particularly in Greece where I've tried to explain it in the past. Their fear, which is a very real fear - I meet with bankers here in New York all the time and I know what I'm talking about - their fear is that countries such as Greece and Portugal will succumb to the pressures of the mass of their people to do something drastic. And drastic means withdrawing from the European Union and trying some other way of proceeding, or, and perhaps I should say and/or, to radically alter their economic systems inside, by basically radically changing the organization of enterprises, the distribution of wealth and income, in order to pursue a radically different economic trajectory, one focused on national rebuilding, one which limits drastically the freedom of capital and enterprise to move and to make investment decisions regardless of the impact on the local economy.

"Your best option is to join with us, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the European Community, Germany, France, England and so on, in an alliance, and that alliance is going to try to get you through this situation by shifting the burden of this economic collapse onto the mass of your people."

They're very afraid of that. And so what they've decided to do is a different kind of strategy: to try to appeal to the wealthy and to the leaders, the traditional elites of these countries, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, to say look, you're in danger of a wholesale transformation in your own country that will seriously jeopardize everything that you have accomplished and everything you own, and that your best option is to join with us, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the European Community, Germany, France, England and so on, in an alliance, and that alliance is going to try to get you through this situation by shifting the burden of this economic collapse onto the mass of your people. Tell them a story that their only way out is to become "competitive" and that the only way to become competitive is to lower wages, to lower taxes and to lower the public services that are paid for out of taxes. To basically go back 10, 20, 30, 40 years, maybe even more than that, to standards of livings that the Europeans thought they had left far behind, and basically in that way, slowly persuade some businesses to settle in your countries [that] wouldn't have thought of it before - make the wages and the social conditions so poor that you really do become a competitor of an Asia whose wages and taxes are rising, of a Latin America whose wages and taxes are rising; they're going up, you come down, and at some point, you'll be able to get an advantage. That is the real political economy that is being presented here.

And I think the wealthy, the top corporate leaders of Greece and of Portugal, have understood that they will be better off, as they see it, in an alliance with international capital reorganizing their own economies to become "competitive" slowly, than to not cut that deal, to have their own economies go through internal convulsions, where their positions as traditional political elites, as the owners of the means of production and as the wealthy could very well dissolve in an uprising of either the left or the right or even some combination of them, focused on a national development program that does not give the privileges that have continued to be taken by the elites in those countries.

Have austerity policies like the ones being implemented now in Greece, or the types of policies that are typically championed by the IMF, ever succeeded in helping a country recover from an economic crisis?

The people who make these arguments are also the people who commission and pay for the evaluations. So the answer is: It depends on your point of view. Are there examples that the IMF points to in which austerity drove down taxes and drove down prices and drove down wages in some way that they were followed by upturns in economic well-being? Yes. But of course, the critics point out that wasn't because of austerity; it was for other reasons, or it might even have been despite austerity. It's a little bit like pointing, for example, to Argentina, pointing out that they defaulted on their national debt, ended up paying 50 or 60 cents on the dollar many years later, and yet in the aftermath of that, until recently, they had a pretty good boom going, so they could claim that gee, you know, defaulting is not only not bad, it's good for your economic development, but the critics would quickly point out that Argentina benefitted from other things, that its well-being was not because of but despite the default etc., etc.

"The wealthy and the business community went to work, with their resources and their business connections, to make sure that they didn't pay the price."

Here's the bottom line: What austerity is about is shifting the burden of an economic crisis from one part of the population to another. The mass of Greek people did not force [Andreas] Papandreou to borrow money. The mass of the Greek people didn't know about or have much to do with fiscal policy at the national level. In fact, governments, bankers, leading industrialists, ship builders, the major players of the Greek economy, got together, as their counterparts did elsewhere, to produce the decisions that then, in the wake of the international collapse of capitalism, became unsupportable, producing a crisis in Greece. Once that had happened, there was only one question left: Who was going to pay the cost of all the debt we've run up or all the production decisions we've made that have left us without the capacity to export, with a dependence on imports etc.?

And at that point, as has happened in every country - Greece is in no way unique - the wealthy and the business community went to work, with their resources and their business connections, to make sure that they didn't pay the price. OK, then there were only two other options: If the rich and the wealthy and the corporations don't pick up the cost of the crisis, then either foreign institutions will, like the European Central Bank and IMF and European Commission, or your own mass of your people. Austerity is the explanation that it's going to be put on the mass of the people, and your own rich folks, your corporations, together with the international organizations, will make sure that happens. When they're asked why, in a period of economic suffering, you would make the mass of people, who didn't cause the crisis and who are already suffering its consequences, why you would make them pay even more in an austerity, you can't possibly say, in any kind of honest discourse, well, somebody has to pay and we're not going to do it and the international institutions are not going to do it, so it's got to be the masses.

You can't say that, so here's what you say: You tell a story that yes, this austerity is terribly painful, but there really is no option because the only way out of this crisis is to become "competitive" as a locus of production, "competitive" in terms of the prices of your outputs on the world market, and to get those prices down, and to get production to come here, we have to offer capital internationally very low wages and very low taxes. So you shift the burden of the crisis, which is the point, on to the masses of people, while telling a story which you hope that the media and the professors of economics will take seriously, that this is not only the best way to solve the problem, but the only way. None of that is true, but it is the best face they can put on the cost-shifting purpose that austerity serves.

Do you believe that Greece should remain in the eurozone or should it perhaps return to a domestic currency, and how could Greece even depart from the eurozone and rebuild its economy with its own currency?

Well, I think the Greeks have to make a decision. And again, this is not unique to Greece at all. The Portuguese have to make this decision; the Spanish have to make this decision, the Italians and so on. And this decision is really more, in my judgment, about the organization of the economy inside your country. The major question isn't your relationship to the rest of the world. The major question is your relationship to yourself. What is the Greek population going to do? If you continue to permit your huge private companies, shipbuilding and others, and your private banks, to conduct business as usual, to pay the salaries that they do, to give the perks that they do, to organize public policy by working through these people as the crucial middlemen between what the government does and what the larger society and economy had as conditions, then you're stuck. Then you are either going to knuckle under in the form of austerity, or go through basically another kind of austerity, which is what you would face if you quit the euro, if you went back to the drachma [Greece's currency before the euro], if you went back to an independent economy; you'd have to devalue something awful; all your input costs will go crazy; you'd have domestic trouble of the sort you haven't seen in Greece since the Second World War.

"We have, in the United States, the equivalent of Greece. They're called our destroyed major cities."

But that's all premised on [leaving the] economy in the basic structure; all the key decisions are made by the major shareholders and boards of directors of leading Greek enterprises. They have long ago figured out how to keep the government from playing a role that threatens them. If you leave all of that intact, and that's a fundamental political and ideological condition, then you're going to face an indeterminate period of time of real economic decline. The decline of Greece as a society, the decline of cities like Athens and Piraeus and all of them, and you're going to become one of the corners of Europe that will be looked upon as [a disaster]. It will be blamed on something in the Greek character, the way you have already seen that done.

Let me warn you, because the United States should be a picture for you to think about: We have, in the United States, the equivalent of Greece. They're called our destroyed major cities. I'm going to pick the most dramatic example, but it is to the United States what Greece is becoming to Europe. The city I have in mind is Detroit, Michigan. Forty years ago it was the center of the automobile industry. Detroit had a population of 2 million people. It was high working-class incomes, highly trade-union organized workers, the United Auto Workers; they produced new music, Motown rock 'n' roll that swept the entire globe as a new kind of culture. They were an economic, political and cultural mecca, a powerhouse, a success story of modern capitalism. That was in 1970.

"We have in these areas people, populations as big as Greece, suffering unspeakable, unimaginable long-term economic decline with no end in sight. That is the future of other cities in the United States, and I believe it is the future of Greece."

So here we are, 40 years later, [and] what have we got? The population of Detroit is now 690,000 people. That is, an overwhelming majority of the people left the city; they left behind their homes; they left behind their families; they left behind the schools. The city of Detroit is a wasteland. The majority of its housing is empty. There are fires in large parts of the city every day as abandoned houses go up. One of the largest problems in Detroit today is wild dogs - 50,000 dogs. Why? Because the city of Detroit has no money, so it can't hire dog wardens, the people who catch dogs if they don't have an owner and get them off the street. Millions of people can't afford to keep a dog, so they simply let him go, and so what we have is wild dogs roaming the street. I didn't make any of this up. In a very short time, Detroit became a wasteland. The city declared bankruptcy [in 2013] and is now administered by state officials who are all white, in a city that is overwhelmingly black. So you have the economic collapse laid over a racial divide. It is a disaster. Cleveland, Ohio, same thing. Camden, New Jersey, same thing. Youngstown, Ohio, same thing. We have in these areas people, populations as big as Greece, suffering unspeakable, unimaginable long-term economic decline with no end in sight. That is the future of other cities in the United States, and I believe it is the future of Greece.

In a peculiar way, it is even easier in Europe to do it to a whole country, like Greece, than it is to do it to randomly selected cities in the Midwest, the way we do it here in the United States. But if nothing is done to change the internal logic of capitalist development, there is no reason to believe this is going to change anytime soon. Greek wages are not going to go to the level of Indian or Vietnamese or Chinese wages, not for a long time, and those countries are busy using their accumulated wealth to hold on to their industries. They're not going to quickly make capital movable elsewhere. The Greeks have to take control of their own economic possibilities, radically change the way wages and prices are calculated, [and] become "competitive" not by lowering wages but by lowering profits and the returns to capital. That's the way to go, to invest in your own country. Yes, is there a little bit of autarchy here? For sure. But the alternative is to be part of a division of labor on a global scale that assigns to Greece, as it has assigned the same thing to Detroit, and I don't believe the Greek people want or deserve to be put into that situation for decades to come.

In essence, you've made the argument that we should be looking toward a post-capitalist future, not just in Greece but worldwide. What would this post-capitalist future look like and how could it be accomplished?

Yes, you have understood me perfectly well, but let me make one final point about that. In one of my recent radio programs, I talked about billionaires because we have a very useful statistical service here in the United States that keeps track of billionaires, and your [readers] might also be interested to know that we have about 1,600 or 1,700 billionaires in the world. If you put them together, they own together, these 1,600 or 1,700 individuals in the world, as much as the bottom half of the entire population of this planet, some 3 to 3.5 billion people. OK, for me, this conversation about capitalism is over. Any economic system that produces 1,600 billionaires who can together dispose of an equal amount of the property of this planet as the lower half, 3.5 billion people, is an economic system that no longer justifies anyone's support other than those 1,700. Them, I could understand. But this is a system whose success in increasing output is completely offset by its absolutely obscene distribution of wealth, which makes the pharaohs of ancient Egypt look like nothing in comparison. So for me, going beyond capitalism is what we call in the United States a "no brainer." It is something that is, or should be, instant, immediate and obvious.

To repeat your question, what do you put in its place? Well, for me, the answer is not the traditional socialist focus on collective ownership of the means of production, state enterprise, nor is it substituting government planning for the market, and I will tell you why. I think, after many efforts have been made, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam and so on, I think it's clear that whatever the achievements of state ownership and planning over private ownership and markets, that proved insufficient. It did not provide a society which the mass of people will see as a desirable, new post-capitalist system to go to, and indeed, those societies were not even able to preserve public ownership and planning, since most of them have more or less collapsed and fallen back to private ownership and markets.

"We have to convert from capitalistically organized enterprises into worker cooperative enterprises."

So what is then the missing link? What can we learn from the successes and failures of traditional socialism so that we can better define where we need to go next? And for me, the answer is to understand that we have to transform the organization of enterprises. That is, all of those institutions, whether we call them a company or a firm or an entrepreneur, whatever we want, the way we organize the production of goods and services, the factories, the offices, the stores that produce the goods and services we depend on, they have to be drastically altered.

The way we have it now, the capitalist way, puts a tiny number of people in the position of making all of the decisions. Most business in capitalist societies is done by corporations. Corporations have what are called major shareholders, usually a group of 10 or 20 people who own enough shares to be the determining votes on all matters of the corporation. One of the things that shares decide is the board of directors, usually a group of 10 to 20 people who make all the basic, day-to-day decisions: what to produce, how to produce, where to produce and what to do with the profits. So we have organized production so that all the key decisions are made by a tiny group of people, literally 20 to 30 people, at the top of a pyramid. The vast majority of workers, production workers, white-collar workers, services, manufacturing, whatever, are excluded systematically from participation in those decisions. If it's a private enterprise, it's organized the way I just described.

And when the state takes it over, as in the Soviet Union, you still have the gap between the mass of people who do the work and the tiny group who make the decisions, but what has changed is that the tiny group is state officials put there by the government or the Communist Party or whatever ruling groups there are, but you still have an organization that juxtaposes a small group of decision-makers at the top, and a vast mass of workers excluded from those decisions practically and in actuality at the other end. And my argument is, therein lies the crucial problem. If we want economic production of goods and services to serve the people in each community or in each nation, then we have to put the people who are to be served in the decision-making position. To make a long story short, we have to convert from capitalistically organized enterprises into worker cooperative enterprises.

Let me, in a very brief way, give you an idea of what this would mean. If a factory wishes to close its businesses in Thessaloniki or its businesses in Cincinnati, Ohio, or in Chicago, or in Lyon, France, or in Dusseldorf, Germany, it would have to be a decision made by all of the workers there together. One worker, one vote, democratically. In that case, guess what? The factory wouldn't leave; the workers wouldn't do that because they don't want to move to China or to some other place and have a job. The whole mobility of production would have to be organized in a completely different way if workers are to participate and to do such a thing.

"The single most important cause of unequal wealth and income is the distribution of enterprise profits."

Let me give you another example: If the profits are distributed democratically - in other words, if all of the profits distributed are distributed by all of the people whose labor helped to produce those profits, namely all the workers, then guess what? They're not going to give a wildly disproportionate share of the profits to shareholders as dividends, just like they're not going to give a few top executives huge pay packages while the average worker cannot afford to send his kid to school, cannot afford a decent vacation etc. The single most important cause of unequal wealth and income is the distribution of enterprise profits. If we change corporations from the major shareholders deciding on the board of directors and therefore giving the bulk of the profits to themselves, and instead make that a democratic decision, we will have a much less unequal distribution of net revenues in corporations, and consequently, this will be the most serious, sustained and effective assault toward a direction of less inequality than anything that has been tried in the past. Instead of struggling in every society over the redistribution of income, by converting to worker co-ops, we wouldn't distribute it so unequally in the first place, and that would obviate any need for redistribution.

I could go on, but my answer is this: What we need to do in addition to social ownership of means of production and proper planning for the economic outcomes we want, is we need to democratize enterprises, to finally say goodbye to the capitalist organization of enterprises that has subordinated all of the decisions that enterprises make, that impact the politics, the culture of the whole society, have subordinated those to what is privately profitable rather than what is socially desirable and sustainable. This has driven us to an impossible situation, and whether we look at it environmentally by the degradation of nature that these corporations have done, or we look at it in terms of social inequality, the time to go beyond capitalism is obvious - it's now, and it's long overdue.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Michael Nevradakis

Michael Nevradakis is a Ph.D. student in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin and a US Fulbright Scholar presently based in Athens, Greece. Michael is also the host of Dialogos Radio, a weekly radio program featuring interviews and coverage of current events in Greece.


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