Richard Wolff sat in a downtown Chicago coffee shop and confessed he was having the time of his life. "I am a little like a kid in a candy store. I really am," Wolff said with a grin, using the sort of language not usually associated with the dry world of Marxist economics.
(For video interview click player above)
But then, the great recession, and the still-rumbling global economic crisis, has been good for the 69-year-old economist. He has gone from being a rare thing – an American Marxist – to something even rarer: a popular American Marxist.
For Wolff is in very high demand these days. Barely 24 hours goes by without Wolff being interviewed on one or more radio stations in America. He even has his own radio show that broadcasts once a week. He has appeared on TV, including on the conservative Glenn Beck show on Fox. He spends many days on the road visiting universities across the US, giving speeches to students and academics alike in lecture halls that are uniformly packed. This year alone he will have three books published. And through all that prodigious output his message is the same: American capitalism is on the way out.
That is not a message that has historically gone down well in America, where cultural hostility to Marxism, socialism and communism has been the norm. But, Wolff says, the great recession has changed all that. Now his phone never stops ringing, and his schedule has him crisscrossing the country from California to Texas to Maine. He even gets speech invitations from Tea Party groups.
"It is nonstop. I turn down two for every one I do. I can't physically do them all," said Wolff, who currently has a post at the New School in New York but holds qualifications from Yale, Stanford and Harvard.
The sudden surge in interest in hearing Wolff's Marxist critique of America has thrust him into some unusual places not normally associated with radical leftism. In New York, he gives a monthly talk at a venue in the West Village's tree-lined streets, where townhouses sell for millions of dollars and the bars are haunted by film stars. He has spoken to Occupy protesters in semi-rural Maine and next month will head to the Texan megalopolis of Houston to give a talk. He was invited to speak to an Occupy group at his alma mater of Harvard but security barred him from entering. "I am alumni. They ask me for money every year, but they would not let me in," he said.
In Chicago – deep in the American heartland – Wolff was now taking his Marxist message on a three day Midwestern tour, speaking at Columbia College downtown, meeting local media and then having a day of talks at the College of DuPage way out in the city's wealthy suburbs. Wolff was also giving his first interview to a Spanish-language radio station.
"That's a new one," he said.
Anthony Arnove, an editor at Haymarket books, which is bringing out Wolf's next work, Democracy At Work: A Cure for Capitalism, explained what he thought was behind Wolff's remarkable rise. "He knows how to speak to people. He knows how not to speak over people's heads. But he is also clear that that he comes from a Marxist framework," Arnove said.
But Wolff, who speaks with a strong New York accent, also serves up his radicalism with humour. "I am an economist. I do apologise," he said, opening his speech in a packed lecture hall at Columbia College to bursts of laughter.
That was a typical Wolff line. He went on to describe the inherent instabilities of capitalist business cycles with a parallel to a crazy roommate. "If you lived with with a person as unstable as this economic system, you would have moved out a long time ago," he quipped.
Wolff's inspiration for his speaking style is the famed comedian Richard Pryor. Wolff was a huge fan, and he studied Pryor's delivery and technique and how he addressed taboos around race, sex and swearing. Wolff decided he would do the same but by tackling what he says is the true American taboo: the country's political and economic system.
"What I do is half economics, half performance art. … I say the political sex words, the dirty political words, and they like it. They like a little radicalism. They have been waiting. They want this," he said.
Wolff's critique is simple: American capitalism is dying in the face of stagnant wages, fewer jobs, greater debt and larger numbers of Americans being forced to work ever longer hours for ever less money.
His answer is simple, too. It's not revolution. It's instead a taking over of workplaces – thus controlling the means of production – by workers, who would then organise and have a direct say in running their own companies. Such worker-run businesses, he argues, would eliminate the stock market and boards of directors. On the other hand, they would be unlikely to send themselves to China to reduce labour costs, or pay top executives millions of dollars in bonuses or pollute the environments around their own workplace.
"Have I given you some reason to think that this is a better way to organise a society?" he asked one Chicago audience by way of conclusion. "Come on. You know I have," he said.
After the speech, there was a brisk trade in Wolff's books, and numerous people queued up to get him to autograph their copies. Several even asked to have their photographs taken with him. For some in the crowd, Wolff was simply preaching to the converted. One student, Greg Goodman, admitted he was already sympathetic to the end of capitalism. "It has always been obvious to me that capitalism started, changed over time and now it is going away," he said.
But, from Wolff's point of view, the opinions of Brooke Kile, 29, were likely more exciting. She worked in the college's student loans department, which made it especially ironic that she would have been tempted to come hear a Marxist speak. She was, however, not entirely convinced. "It feels a little too simplistic," she said. But then she said something few might have expected. "Maybe that is the system talking," she added. "I don't consider socialism and communism as anti-American. I think it is patriotic to question."