This video is a real tour de force. In just
57 short minutes U. Mass economics Professor Richard Wolff lays out in
macro terms the contours of the present crisis of US capitalism. He does
this in a clear, concise way avoiding by and large the use of jargon.
Any relatively informed person can easily understand the message.
Throughout, actively moving graphs and
charts liberally sprinkle the text and aid the viewers’ understanding of
the message. The presentation (filmed before a live audience) is broken
down into 10 short subsections each with a single central theme. Brief
pauses between sections allow one to digest what has been said and at
the same time prepare for what follows.
Some of the mini topics covered include:
We Got Here: American Exceptionalism
Bust and No Boom in Sight
Why Re-Regulation Won’t Work
Wolff’s central argument is clear.
During the long century between the
end of the Civil War and the 1970s, US capitalism experienced a steady
expansion fueled by the introduction of new technologies. The resultant
rising levels of production and productivity allowed capitalists to
raise wages consistently while maintaining profits.
Although this growth did not occur without
its blips, notably the several mini crashes of the late 1890s and the
Great Depression, it nonetheless proved lasting.
Built into this scenario lay the idea of
American Exceptionalism (The USA as a unique nation where upward and
onward for all forever existed) and of The American Dream (a house, a
car, and consumerism) as every person’s birthright. Sometime during the
1970s things began to change.
First, the introduction of computers
led to rising productivity but without increased job creation or
Second, a second great wave of
massive immigration led to more competition for jobs.
Third, outsourcing became available
to capital as a way to drive down costs and put a ceiling on pay
Fourth, foreign competition from
low-wage areas hurt both domestic and foreign sales.
This brought the long wave of rising wages
to a screeching halt.
As a result of the above, workers’ real wages have leveled off from the
1970s (and even declined more recently) to present. But, as we know, in
order to survive capital must expand. While surging exports certainly
help keep the wheels turning, the US home market is vital to
capitalism’s survival. The ruling class (a term used sparingly by Wolff
incidentally) hit upon a great new idea.
Why not take the surplus value created by
the workers and lend it back to them with interest?
This produces a profit upon the profit and
it allows the internal market to keep churning. And so the great credit
bubble of the past decades came into being as money flowed to literally
anyone with a job or a home and even apparently some without.
But all good things come to an end and this
is where today’s reality comes in: the credit expansion has reached its
limits. Hence today’s crisis, which is not just another blip in Wolff’s
opinion, but a real stone wall up against which the system has crashed.
I showed this video to a group of 30-year-olds and the reaction proved
universally favorable. Some of their comments follow.
“Wolff’s conversational approach to the
lecture was effective, creating a striking sense of urgency.”
“Excellent video because it was a
stimulating and informative overview on the crisis of capitalism and
it makes you think and made me ask questions and want to know more.”
“This video felt like a crash course in
“Even a high school student can
Almost unanimously, however, viewers thought
(and I agree) that Wolff should have spent more footage suggesting what
In this sense one is left with an
explanation of the crisis, capitalist greed, and workers’ exploitation,
but few suggestions how to confront them. While to his credit Wolff does
show that the adjustments made in the 1930s and in subsequent crises
proved only palliatives - like everything suggested so far by the
administration - he clearly leaves any other alternatives almost
entirely to the viewers’ imagination.
Perhaps he should produce another video
entitled “If the Workers Ran the Fan” and fill the gap.