BILL MOYERS: Here’s a synopsis, Richard, of a lot of similar questions that bring us to your book,Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. A viewer who identifies himself as a longtime fan of Dr. Wolff writes, “You’re passionate about workers’ self-directed enterprises. Can you explain briefly why you think these are the way to save capitalism? Critics say your alternative may work in theory but not in practice.”
RICHARD WOLFF: My point is that workers ought to be– all of us who work in an office, a factory or a store—ought to be in the position of participating in the decisions governing that enterprise. And I do that not only because I believe in democracy. And let me say that if you do believe in democracy, it’s always been a mystery to me why that democracy that you believe in doesn’t apply to the place where you work. After all, five out of seven days of every week, most of your adult life, you’re at work.
So if democracy’s an important value it ought to be at your job because that’s where you are most of the time. And democracy at the job means the following. If you have to live with the decisions that are made in a job, what you’re producing, what technology’s being used, what the health conditions of your workplace are, what’s done with the fruits of your labor, literally whether your factor or your office continues, since you have to live with those decisions you ought to participate, the basic idea of democracy.
So I like the idea of cooperative enterprises because it fulfills my value commitment to democracy. Whereas a capitalist enterprise doesn’t because it keeps all the decision making in a tiny minority. We all who go to work have to live with their decisions, but we don’t participate in them, not even to speak of the community that has to live with the decisions.
But the second reason is I see concrete results coming from an enterprise that was run by the workers collectively, and let me give you a few examples. First, most of us believe that if the workers themselves made a decision that they would close the enterprise and move it to China, I don’t think so.
I think that the whole running away of enterprises out of the United States was made possible because the decisions to close enterprises here and to open them in another part of the world where you could get away with paying workers much less was a decision that was very good for the folks who make the decisions, but not for the average workers there.
So if we had decision making made by the workers in place they wouldn’t undo their own jobs and they wouldn’t move. And that would make a very different economic system from the one we have today. Second example, suppose a technology was being considered by the corporate heads who make the decision, the board of directors, and it was one that wasn’t safe, it created too much noise, too much air pollution, despoiled the water, whatever. If it’s a bottom line decision of the typical sort the board of directors and the shareholders seeing profit using that technology might go ahead and use it because it’s profitable and that’s what they’re called upon to do, make profits.
If the workers collectively made the decision knowing that they had to breathe that air, they had to hear that noise, they had to live with that water and so did their spouses and their children and their neighbors, I bet you you’d get a different decision because they would weigh the costs and benefits of that decision differently. And my third example, although I could give you many, Bill, if you want them.
The third example, when it comes to deciding what to do with the profits, suppose instead the workers themselves made that decision democratically, how do we divide the profits?
You think they would give a handful of top officials wild sums of money to buy $40 million apartments on Fifth Avenue while everybody else was having to borrow money to get their kids through school? I don’t think so. I think that people collectively would distribute the wealth more to some than others for all kinds of reasons, but they would do it in a much less unequal way than we have in a capitalist system.
So I challenge all of those who are concerned with a more equal system, with less inequality, to come up with a better way of achieving it than having workers be in a position to make the decisions as to how we divide the profits because that is the single most important determinant of the inequality of income in our society.