Teaching Capitalism's Crisis

By Wolff, Rick | Radical Teacher, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Teaching Capitalism's Crisis


Wolff, Rick, Radical Teacher


After teaching both graduate and undergraduate economics since 1969 at Yale, at the City University of New York, and, since 1973, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I retired at the end of 2008. The economic crisis that exploded across the second half of 2008 had suddenly created exciting new opportunities for Marxian critiques of capitalism to reach large audiences. As usual, the economics profession was far behind the flow of events; most economists continued to celebrate the private enterprises and markets that were so spectacularly imploding all around them. The premier heterodox economics program in the United States from 1973 to 2000, UMass-Amherst had been my academic home; I taught courses in Marxian economics every semester there for over thirty years to consistently overflowing classrooms with students mostly very interested to learn what I had to teach. However, even there, after 2001, the atmosphere--other than the students--had become progressively less hospitable to Marxian economics. So 2008 seemed a good time to leave.

Starting in August 2008, invitations increased to give talks at colleges, in high schools, to labor unions, and before community groups; simultaneously radio and TV invitations soared. Having published both academic and popular work over the last 35 years, I had enough exposure to generate such invitations. Before 2008 they had come only occasionally and despite my reputation as a Marxian economist; afterward they came frequently and because a critical or Marxian perspective was wanted. In fulfilling these invitations, I gradually produced an analysis of the causes, depth, and social costs of the crisis. It combined (1) the new Marxian theoretical framework I developed at UMass with my colleague, Stephen Resnick with (2) an immersion in the fast-changing details of the global crisis and governments' desperate efforts to control it. I learned to present the analysis (or parts of it) in forms ranging from 1-minute sound bites to half-hour media interviews and live presentations, from classroom lectures (I am now a Visiting Professor at the New School University in New York) to very short (1000 words) topically focused essays and eventually a 57-minute documentary film version of the analysis, Capitalism Hits the Fan. A book-length collection of those short essays--a kind of analytical diary of the crisis from 2005 to 2009--was published by Interlink Publishing Group late last year, also titled Capitalism Hits the Fan.

The critical explanations I offer and the solution I sketch have been remarkably well received, by the measure of my invitations (far more in the last eight months than in the previous 25 years) and the audience responses. I refer here to the broad, public reception in high schools, community meetings, labor union halls, radio and television interviews (many with live call-in components), and college and university speaking engagements, in addition to my own classroom teaching. As a teacher and active public speaker all my adult life, I can tell when an audience is bored, barely participating, or actively engaged. My conclusion is that the crisis has profoundly shaken confidence in the economy and the politics of the United States. It has re-opened people's minds after 30 years of rightward drift and a mass turning away from politics and civic engagement. The hope that Obama's election would make a major difference is giving way to a deepening skepticism and disappointment. Simply put, there is a broader suspicion than I recall ever encountering in the United States that our economic and social problems are systemic, urgent, and going unaddressed in ways that threaten long-term decline.

The following, then, is a generic version of my presentation to diverse audiences. It draws on my economics background but seeks to convey all the basic themes without requiring such background of my audience.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Basic Analysis

This is not a financial crisis. …

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