The Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theory of Richard Wolff

Dr. Richard D. Wolff is a prime example of that critically endangered species known as Marxian economists. His critique of capitalism centers mostly on Marx’s theory of surplus-value and it is, at least since the financial crisis of 2007, increasing useful. Wolff made his case for a new model of socialism back in 2012 when we were still coasting off the Occupy movement’s meager momentum and with a nearly-sympathetic ear in the White House. In his book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, he lays out his plan to replace capitalism with genuine socialism, which he distinguishes based on how the surplus-value of labor is allocated in a society. He dismisses Soviet-style socialist programs as “state capitalism”, where the surplus-value of labor is extracted by the state-apparatus in precisely the same way that capitalist do in what he terms “private capitalism”. I make similar distinctions, calling Soviet-style communism, a truly refined, monopolistic capitalism for the same reasons Dr. Wolff articulates.

For Wolff, there is only one way for a state to become truly socialist and that is to have what he calls “worker self-directed enterprises” or WSDEs. (He may be Marxian, but he shares the economists’ penchant for acronyms.) Such enterprises he concludes allow all the decisions and all the surplus-value to be wholly controlled by the workers engaged in the enterprise itself. This is what Marx intended by “socialism”, although not “communism”. It was self-controlled workplaces that required the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which Marx saw as an intermediary between capitalism and communism. Wolff agrees, stressing that WSDEs will sufficiently resolve capitalism into genuine socialism.

Dr. Richard D. Wolff

To some extent, I believe Wolff is correct. The step he outlines is absolutely necessary for the evolution of capitalism (whether private or state, in his terms) to socialism. However, it is not sufficient. It does not address other forms for rent, such as landlordism and interest-driven banking. Neither does it treat the action of all workers, taken as a whole, as the monopoly Marx does. This oversight would leave the pressure to make a living off of one’s labor intact. Under Wolff’s plan, the proletariat inherits the role of the bourgeoisie, not so much replacing the political role of capitalism but collapsing the two Marxian economic classes into one. Again, this is a necessary first step, but the problem should be obvious: if you didn’t work, you would be oppressed by those who do, and a new sort of forced austerity would be exploited by the proletarians.

The laborers would enact a kind of “capitalism of the proletariat” which would perhaps be the worst kind of socialist dystopia because it would be a form of capitalism that looks more like genuine socialism than any other yet conceived. It would prove too difficult to suss out the difference for many on the left and make its systemic problems hard to overcome than capitalism. The “capitalism of the proletariat” would look socialist because of the working class would be in charge, but only the working class as it was formerly conceived of by capitalists. The unpaid laborers, the sick, the old, the dreamers, the drifters, the poets and–dare I say it–the philosophers might all too soon feel themselves to be the new underclass in a world were “labor” is the new capital. We would have to look at other interests, such as our stake in having free time, and adjust our economic models accordingly if we were to escape this new nightmare. I don’t mean to sound upset with Wolff. Frankly, I think his work is brilliant. It’s just that we need more than WSDEs to convert capitalism into socialism.