A Conversation With Richard D. Wolff

Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a visiting professor in the Graduate Programs in International Affairs at the New School University in New York City. In this interview, Wolff discusses how market-based economies have had their critics since the times of Plato and Aristotle, how both major US political parties have become subservient to the gospel of capitalism and how technology isn’t always constructive. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Vaios Triantafyllou: Picking up where we left off in our previous conversation, I would like to discuss the interplay between central planning or economic organization and the direct participation in decision-making on both a political and an economic level. Do you think that there exists such an interplay? If so, how can we make sure that the former does not interfere with or limit the latter?

Richard Wolff: You can think of economies that have existed historically, in which each producing unit (I will exaggerate now, but you get the point) was self-sufficient. Think of a farming family, a peasant family, that literally makes its own clothing, builds its own house, raises its own animals; it could be in some sense self-sufficient. But, for a long time in human history, the human community has found it advantageous in some way to shift from self-sufficiency to a division of labor so that one person bakes the bread, another person makes the shirts, another person designs the software programs and so on.

The minute you have a division of labor — and the advantage there is, as Adam Smith and many others note — you get more output per hour of input. But the minute you do that, to get that advantage, you must pay, dialectically, the price. You must deal with the negatives. One of those negatives is the need for coordination. There has to be some way that the bread maker makes enough bread but…

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