“There’s an Alternative to the Hierarchical, Top-Down Capitalist Corporation”

JANINE JACKSON: When we spoke with Richard Wolff earlier this year, I noted that news media don’t even present economics as a contested realm. Richard, it’s as if there’s only the system as we currently have it, so it’s very difficult to think about making changes in that system.

Richard Wolff: No, you know, it’s always struck me as bizarre, even if you are a great lover of capitalism, our system, and you just think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even if you’re like that, if that’s your point of view, the fact is that places, like, I don’t know, let’s pick one: the People’s Republic of China—for the last 25 years, that economy, which is organized in ways that are different from the one we have here in the United States, that People’s Republic of China has achieved the most rapid economic transformation from poor country to superpower economically, that we have ever seen in the history of the human race. OK…. That alone would mean we ought to be exploring, in our classrooms, in our media: What’s that about? How did they accomplish that? That’s something that most of the world’s people dream of, and so it’s an important matter.

And now you add another couple of other considerations. That it’s the largest country by population on this planet. And it is a superpower, has nuclear weapons and all of that. And you’d say, any rational person would understand: Of course we have to look at that model of how you do economics, how you organize an economic system, to ask the logical, rational question: not necessarily that we must copy them, but are there things about what they do, and how they organize, that we might be able to learn something from?

I like to point out to my students sometimes that the world’s largest debtor country is the United States, and that the largest creditor country of the United States is the People’s Republic of China. If nothing else, that should provide a hint—and I’m trying to be polite here—a hint that we ought to explore.

And your question is exactly right, because in 99 percent of the curricula of the United States in economics, there is nothing of the sort; there is no program, no course, certainly no sequence of courses (which is what you would need to do a proper exploration, over a year or two or three), there’s nothing of the sort. So that when I go and try to explain to people how that economy is different, I’m starting from scratch. They haven’t the faintest idea of what I’m talking about, and worse than that, they don’t know, in that they have no sense in their heads that there’s anything there they ought to have been taught, they ought to have learned, as just being a citizen and making rational decisions.

Another way to put it: We have an economic system in which the enterprises of this country are pretty much organized in the same way. At the top of each enterprise is an owner; the owner can be an individual, can be a family, can be a partnership. But most of the business in America is done by an owner that’s called a “corporation.” It has shareholders, the shareholders elect a board of directors, usually 15–20 people, and they operate the enterprise. There can be a few hundred employees, there can be a few hundred thousand employees, and everything in between. Now that’s a very interesting way of organizing business. Not the way feudal manors were organized, it’s not the way slave plantations were organized; it’s peculiar to capitalism.

But here’s a simple fact which ought to illustrate, in a sense, the question you’ve asked: This is an extremely undemocratic arrangement. What do I mean? Well, the number of people that make all the key decisions in American corporations, and by that I mean deciding what to produce, deciding how, deciding what technology to use, deciding the physical geographic location—will it be produced in Cincinnati or in Shanghai, etc.—and finally, what to do with the profits that the labor of all the people working there have helped to produce? All of those key decisions, that shape the lives of everybody involved in the company, and indeed everybody in the larger community, are made by tiny groups of individuals, the major shareholders, that 1 percent who own three-quarters of the shares, or two-thirds of them, and the boards of directors that they choose. This is a tiny minority sitting at the top of every corporation, looking and acting pretty much like kings and queens once acted when there were monarchies instead of democratic parliamentarian systems.

And we don’t question that, we here in America, with our commitment to democracy. We seem not to be able to ask the obvious question: If we like democracy, as we say we do, if we insist on some sort of accountability of the political leaders who make decisions that impact us, why in the world do we not make the same demand—democratic accountability—of the economic leaders in our society, the people who run these enormous corporations, that are the dominant economic factor in our society? And we don’t.

And the funny thing is that, of course, there is an alternative; just like there was an alternative to monarchy—namely, political democracy—there’s an alternative to the hierarchical, top-down capitalist corporation. And it has a number of names, because it’s very old; the one that’s being used much these days is “worker cooperative,” or “producer cooperative,” and the basic idea is, we would have a different economy if we organized our enterprises in an alternative way.

Namely, instead of hierarchical or vertical, with a tiny, unaccountable leadership at the top, we didn’t do that. We said, there is no leadership. Or to put it differently, if there is a leadership, it has to be elected by the workers in an enterprise; they have to have the right to recall these people. In other words, that the workers in a place have democratic rights in the workplace, that are roughly analogous to the politically democratic rights we have in the communities where we live. If you did that, all the decisions that we have lived with, and that have produced the economic problems with which this conversation began, would be different.