An Interview with Richard Wolff

Adrian Lo, Emaline Kelso, Richard Wolff, Scott Remer, Spring 2015

Richard D. Wolff is one of America’s most prominent Marxist economists, renowned for his groundbreaking work on economic theory and Marxian class analysis. He is an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and he’s a visiting professor in the New School University’s graduate program in international affairs. He’s also lectured at Yale, the City University of New York, and the Sorbonne. Wolff has written a number of books, including Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It and Democracy at Work, and he’s co-authored such books as Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism and Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. Adrian Lo, SY ’15, and Scott Remer, PC ’16, sat down to interview him over the phone for the Spring 2015 Issue about our current political and economic predicament, with Emaline Kelso, MC ’17, and Scott Remer, PC ’16, transcribing (PDF version).

An Interview with Richard Wolff

Lo: In your book Democracy at Work, you pointed to the moment in the seventies when real wages began to stagnate, creating a disproportionate concentration of wealth towards capital as opposed to labor, as one of the turning points of the whole credit crisis. That seems to be the point at which the crisis began from the bottom up. And I’m curious if we can look a little closer at why there was this turning point and whether that has any implications on what we’re seeing around the world right now. My question is the following: in the early ’70s, Nixon ended the gold standard, which was a move that expanded or dematerialized money in a way. I’m curious whether the expansion of money and the ability to extend credit has anything to do with the crisis we’re seeing, and if so, how?

Wolff: First of all, at the most philosophical level, anything as profound as I believe the 1970s were in terms of changing basic parameters of the economic system we live in, anything as deep a change as that, always has many, many contributing factors. Focusing in on one or two always means you’re missing a great deal. So the answer is, sure, going off the gold standard when Nixon did, that the changing credit situation in the United States played its role. But any commentator has to focus on a few things because if I started listing all the different factors that had played a role you would get bored and I would get tired before we would even get to the analysis just by the process of listing. So I’m going to focus on what I think were the key things that stagnated the wages—that made them stop rising and that shifted the whole structure of the economy into what we now lament as the disappearing middle class, or the growing inequality of wealth and income, etc.

Here are the four that I would primarily point to:

Number One: In terms of the long term effects, this would have to be perhaps the single most important item that I would focus your attention on. In the 1970s, American businesses (and by the way similar things were happening to European and Japanese businesses and I’m here thinking of larger multinational corporations particularly)they basically had what you might call a eureka moment. They realized that they had been building their enterprises in many cases for decades if not for a century or more in a few places in the world—Western Europe, Northern America, and Japan—and they concentrated their factories there, they concentrated their offices, their distribution facilities, their stores in those areas where capitalism in its modern form was born. And along the way, they had converted first the rural areas and their immediate environment, and then the whole world into a kind of hinterland that fed in raw materials, workers, and food so that the concentration of industrial production could continue in these areas—Western Europe, North America, and Japan. And they had to make compromises along the way as a modern working class developed that fought to have a better standard of living. [They had to make compromises] that basically engaged the workers in a rising standard of living, paid for by the productivity of those workers plus the extraction of food, raw materials, cheap labor abroad in the hinterlands around that. So now fast forward and we get to the 1970s. In the 1970s, several things happened. One in particular was the jet engine which made it possible for people in Western Europe, Northern America, and Japan to get to any corner of the globe in a matter of hours. And the Internet and telecommunications made it as easy to monitor, to control production a thousand miles away, as it had been before across the street in your workshops. So the big corporations in their eureka moment recognized that they could do much better—they could make much higher profits—under this new situation by moving production, not to make it too complicated, from the old centers of capitalism–Western Europe, North America, and Japan—to what are now becoming the new centers of capitalism—China, above all, but also India, Brazil, and countless other countries where you can get the work done at a fraction of the cost and you have very pliable governments, because these areas of the world are desperately poor and desperately eager to get these corporations to come in to give them even a chance to overcome mass poverty.

And so, what you begin to have, and what you have had ever since and we’re having it right now, is a massive exodus of jobs, and the jobs that go first are the jobs where the gap between what is paid here say in Cincinnati or Chicago or New York and what is paid in Shanghai or Beijing or Tianjin or any other place in the world. In other words, the best jobsthe industrial jobs, the jobs where unions were the strongest and have got the highest wages—were precisely the jobs that were eviscerated first. And so you force the American working class to make a choice: you can be underemployed as these jobs are taken away or you can shift over and become accustomed to being a service worker paid much, much less with fewer benefits, with much less job security, and what we have is that process unfolding. So the first big factor is this relocation of capitalism that underpins the stagnation of wages in the United States.

As Bill Maher said on his program the other night, “You want to know what caused the middle class in the United States?” He looks into the audience and says, “Socialism.” I mean, that’s not accurate, but you can see what he’s trying to get at.

The second one, just as important in its own way, was the same technological breakthroughs as computers, which basically substitute machines for people (it’s an old process we call automation in economics). It really took a tremendous leap forward in the 1970s as the computer, which had been invented a little bit earlier, was finally brought into the production process across the industries of Western Europe, North America, and Japan. Between the exodus of jobs stemming from the relocation of capitalism and the automation associated with the computer, what we say in economics is the demand for labor—for workers— basically took an enormous hit, dropped and at the same time the supply for people looking for work rose. So you have this confluence of a shrinking demand for workers, particularly workers that are well paid, and on the other hand a rising supply— and a quick answer about the supply is that with it, in part because of the women’s liberation movement, American adult women moved into the labor force in the United States in a massive way between the 1970s and today, and so they were looking for jobs at a time when the jobs were shrinking, and finally you have a new wave of immigration into the United States, this time not from some place in Europe, but mostly from Latin America and certain other parts of the world. That was where we were similar to Europe: Europe had a massive influx since the 1970s—Africans, north and south Africans, Asians, and so forth—of workers, and you have this rising supply of labor at the same time that you had a falling demand for it, and the end result was this stagnation. From the employers’ point of view, it was simple: why in the world should we raise wages when we don’t have to? When there are so many people in the world available to us relative to what we need, at least what we need here in our own days, that we don’t need to, we will not do so, and the result is what we call stagnation of real wages that has continued. [It hasn’t changed. It led up to the great crisis of 2008, and the stagnation of wages is an absolute constant across the last six or seven years] of this crisis. There is no reason to believe that it will not continue pretty much into the indefinite future.

Having said all of that, there are of course other factors—there is this issue of credit, which going off gold certainly facilitated. The biggest thing about credit that I would urge you to think about is that credit operated as a palliativethink of it almost metaphorically as a drug that over the period 1970 to the beginning of the crisis in 2007—the reality in the situation I just described to you was masked to the American people and to a lesser extent in Europe, and that’s part of why Europe is reacting differently to its crisis than the US is. In the United States, credit exploded starting in the 1970s. The mass distribution of credit—which hasn’t existed before—was really organized. You have to take into account the development of Mastercard and Visa. Before the 1970s, the only people who had something like the credit card—which usually was the American Express card—were business travelers, business executives. This was not considered a mass item; it was a bit of a creative extension of modern banking that the banks decided that they could make a lot of money on what would came to be called “consumer credit.” Before that, banks mainly lent to one another, or to corporations or to business or the government, but they did not lend to the average person. Before the 1930s, that was a total statement. After the 1930s, when the government came in to guarantee home loans, you have the beginning of consumer credit, but it was only limited to the mortgages; the banks wouldn’t do it otherwise because it was too risky. Once the government guaranteed them, they were willing to lend with collateral of a home, but it was the 1970s when what we called the credit card and consumer credit came into being. So for a while, this whole situation of stagnant wages was masked because what workers were doing was buying more stuff, acting the way they had in the previous century when they were buying more and had a rising standard of living. But the difference was that before the 1970s, workers could afford a rising standard of living because their real wages were going up. After the 1970s, when their real wages didn’t go up anymore, they kept on increasing their consumption, partly, for example, because the intensity and the sophistication of advertising pushing them to buy ever more, was also increased, and the very idealist factors I pointed at, too, so the way the workers handled the situation was to respond to the advertising, to begin to believe that they could, for example, send their kids to college, have a summer vacation, get a second car for the wife, who’s now working, et cetera et cetera et cetera, and pay for this all with various kinds of credit and so they could sustain the notion of a rising standard of living that they were engaging and participating in the American Dream, but at that point you’re talking a dead-end situation, because it’s only a matter of time before a rising level of debt on the basis of a stagnant wage hits a stone wall. A day will come, it’s very easy to show, when you can’t borrow any more, because your basic wage will not pay for it, and 2008 really was, if you like the metaphor, the day of reckoning, when the mask of rising credit, through the credit card and the student loan and automobile loan and the house loan, when they hit the wall. That’s why the crisis began with the so-called sub-prime mortgage. It’s when you begin to get the first crack in this absurd and unsustainable arrangement, and that’s why it was so silly for Bush to say that this would be short-run, temporary crisis, nothing to worry about, and for Obama to imagine he could fix it quickly. This is nonsense, this is for people who couldn’t see beyond their bellybutton, they could not understand that this economic downturn was going to be much, much worse than those in the past, because of the way you had this stagnation in the mass of the people, masked by a temporary credit fix.

Just to give you one small statistic, when the Great Depression hit, in 1929, the average level of debt of an American family was about 30% of its annual income. In 2007, the average level of debt of an American family was 130% of its annual income. We had never had an economic downturn of significant proportions with that overhang of debt, and so it wouldn’t take rocket science to understand the downturn with that level of debt is a whole new ballgame from what it had been and what it was in the 1930s. And so if the ’30s was bad, the risk of this one becoming catastrophic should have stared everyone in the face. Once it started to unravel, and that’s really in August of 2008, once the unraveling started, the people here in New YorkI’m sitting in New York as we speakthe people here at the Federal Reserve Bank and all the big banks, it took them a few weeks, but suddenly they realized, and I was here, and I talked to some of them at the time, that they were really facing the abyss. They were facing a breakdown in the American economy, in which, if they didn’t do something drastic and fast, it wouldn’t just be on paper that the collapse would happen. You’d have to have a collapse in the way other countries have collapses. The buses would stop running, the milk wouldn’t show up in the supermarket, when you went to the bank to draw your money out the doors would be closed, et cetera et cetera, and that’s why things went so fast in 2008 and 2009, because there really was no alternative.

Lo: So, then what we have right now is that we have a credit solution to the credit problem, where through quantitative easing and all of that, we just basically shifted over the debt towards national debt?

Wolff: That’s right. We nationalized the debt. In order to save private capitalism, the government was called inand you really have to enjoy, at least there’s part of you crying, but you have to laugh a little bit to, at the very leaders of big business and the biggest banks and insurance companies, who had made careers in the thirty years before 2008 lambasting the government“The government is inefficient, the government is a burden, the government is a drag, and we will have a wonderful economy only if we get the government off our backs,” and endless blather like that. Then in 2008, they all get together, rush to the government to explain to the government how only the government can save them, and that it must take extraordinary measures, spending however much money they need, for however long they need it, to bail them out. There’s somethingyou know, a dramatist is need to capture the ironies of all of that, but yeah, that’s exactly what happened.

Lo: Right. So, then the question is, how can we get off this credit fix? Or how do we, at least in the short term, neutralize the power of the creditor, which we see being so powerful right now that it’s bankrupting countries and forcing the average person to pay off a greater portion.

So here we are in the present time, and what do we lack in America? We lack the organization—that’s the number one problem. The Left in America is large, and is deep, and is widely committed, but what it lacks is organization.

Wolff: Well, I mean, history gives you an answer. It may be an answer that scares the pants of you, but it is the answer that history gives. In the past, when creditors have been able to impose a dependence on everybody else on credit, and then have squeezed them step by step to pay off their debts, to pay the interest, eventually what they do is they pull either the collapse of the people who they’re squeezing, only then to recognize that if you kill the debtor, it will asphyxiate the creditorin other words, if you finally destroy all the people you’ve made dependent upon you, you will come in a moment of brilliant understanding to recognize that all the dependence in the world is two-way. If you read Hegel’s philosophy, you’ll learn in his wonderful section on the master and the slave that the master imagines that the slave is dependent on him, and doesn’t understand that he is dependent on the labor of that slave and if he doesn’t preserve the mutuality, if he overdoes it in demanding things of the slave, in the end the slave will disappear and he will be confronted with his own dependence on that slave and the other slaves, et cetera et cetera. So my fear is that the only real answer is that this is a system heading into the abyss because it doesn’t know how to constrain or to control its own mechanisms, first putting everybody in debt, financializing everything, so that the average American goes into a bodega to buy a plastic bottle of water and uses a credit card to do it, in effect taking a loan, the absurdity of it all, that now the whole first generation of students like you, having to come out of the university with massive amounts of debtyes, this system is likely going to implode, because of its own mechanisms. If you’re asking me, “Could we in some hypothetical arrangement do something about it?” the answer is yes, because history also gives us that alternative, which is that before the system blows itself up, under its own machinery of excess credit-mongering and all the rest of itand by the way, just a footnote, watching Angela Merkel squeezing the new Syriza government in Greece over the question of paying debt is a wonderful example of this self-destruction, and the whole austerity regime has been for six yearsbut in any case, the other historical lesson is that you provoke a revolution, the debtors begin to realize what’s going on, and do not want to go down with the ship. It’s not even that they’re so angry at the creditorsI mean, they arebut it’s not so much that, as their recognition that these lunatic creditors, in their rush to continue to squeeze as much out of the debtors, are literally taking everyone down with them, and so a revolution of the debtors happens. In ancient times, you know your Bible history, there’s something in the Bible called a Jubilee, and the Jubilee is a periodic erasure of all debts, which was a peculiar way that in ancient times, started, I believe, in Sumeria, they tried to cope with this absurdity, when it happened, by having the priests or the folks at the head of the religious hierarchy simply dictate that every so many years all debts would be canceled, no matter what the effect was on the creditors, because the alternative was too dangerous, and I think that those are the options that we face here.

Remer: You wrote in a 2011 Guardian article: “The US left will become a political force with immense potential if it can generate and ally unified organizations able to mobilize and express their constituents’ views and aspirations. Only organization can yield the financial resources needed to defeat the current program of corporations and the rich that aims to return the US to the unequal income and wealth distributions of the late nineteenth century (with its concomitant politics and culture).” And so, I was wondering, in light of the Occupy movement’s failure to achieve structural political change, the current disillusionment broadly felt on the Left, and many of the economic trends that you outlined, how do you predict that such a movement will take shape? What specific steps do you think are necessary in order to spur such a movement’s success within the context of our current system?

Wolff: Okay, great. Good question. Not to be immodest, but I was saying, as I travel around the United States giving talks, which I do much more than I even did back then, but I was saying before the eruption of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when people asked me, “Why is nothing happening in the United States, when you had in Italy and Greece and France, literally across Europe, general strikes and mass demonstrations against the austerity policies there, why isn’t that happening here?” And my answer had two parts. One, the absolute confidence I felt then, as I do now, that all of that is coming. It’s coming here, it will happen here, but it will happen under the specific conditions of the United States. We’re different from England or France or Germany or Japan, and that difference is important, not so much in whether it happens, because that, I think, is clear, but in how it happens and when it happens.

And the second point, let me explain why that is. After World War II, we had just come out of a Great Depression, the 1930s and the war, a period roughly 1929 to 1945. That’s a long time, sixteen years, of the Great Depression, and then the harsh realities of war, wartime rationing, and so on, and during that time we had had as close to a “revolution,” economically speaking, as this country has gotten. Namely, the mass demand of the working class in this country, organized in the CIO, the Communist Party, and the two socialist parties, working closely together, we had the most amazing drive of organizing workers into unions that has ever happened in American history. Greater than anything before and greater than anything since, and we had demands of this new, powerful labor-based organizations, for revolution. We had communists and socialists saying that we ought to have here in the United States some version of what the Russians had had since 1917 over there, and it was a really powerful movement, reflected in the fact that in the midst of a depression, when the government had no money, Roosevelt went on the radio and created the Social Security system, he created the unemployment system, he passed the first minimum wage in the United States, and he created a government hiring program that hired fifteen million people in a tenyear period. These are amazing achievements, which nowadays boggle the mind, given where politics has gone. But my point is, at the end of the war, the business community in this country was in a state of shock. They had been defeated. They had wanted to go through that crisis a little bit like the business community is going through this one. But no such luck! Too much trouble from below, in the 1930s, and so they had to give in, because all those programs I just listed for you, Social Security, unemployment compensation, and the government’s program of hiring, was paid for by taxes on wealthy people and taxes on corporations, which reached heights in those years that they have never come close to in the forty years or fifty years since then. So the business community was enraged. They had been hurt, taxed, they had been vilified, often, in politics as well, in order to build up the so-called middle class. As Bill Maher said on his program the other night, “You want to know what caused the middle class in the United States?” He looks into the audience and says, “Socialism.” I mean, that’s not accurate, but you can see what he’s trying to get at. My point is, at the end of the war, the business community, the wealthy in America, were determined and well-organized to roll back what had caused this aberration in American history, this surge from below that had cost them heavily in taxes, and money used to develop the mass of people. So they crushed it, to make a long story short. They realized it was a coalition, a coalition of the labor movement, socialism, and communism. They quickly decided who was the weak link in this coalitionit was the communist part. As part of demonizing the Soviet Union after World War II, having been an ally of the Russians during the war, we then demonized them. We used that demonization to do a parallel demonization of American communists, they were arrested, they were deported, they were considered to be the Antichrist, all the rest of it. As soon as they were crushed, and you explained to the American people that socialism, it really is just like communism, it’s just spelled differently, and that cost the Socialist Party, and then the more difficult task was to eviscerate the labor movement, but a nice job has been done of that over the last fifty years. So here we are in the present time, and what do we lack in America? We lack the organizationthat’s the number one problem. The Left in America is large, and is deep, and is widely committed, but what it lacks is organization. Nothing like the destruction of the Communist, Socialist, and labor movements, that happened this country, happened in Europe. That’s why Europeans are mobilized. That’s why Syriza was able to win the election two weeks ago. Those things happened because you have the organization that can translate a mass of people’s beliefs and feelings and political loyalties into people in the street, votes in the ballot box, et cetera. They never had the anti-communist crusades that the United States did. They didn’t have McCarthyism. They didn’t have those kinds of things, or if they did have them in a few cases, they were much less successful. They couldn’t get off the ground in anything like what happened in the United States. So we’re behind. We have a Left that still has to create the organizations, whereas in Europe they had them already available to themselves.

Can we figure out ways to overcome the hesitancy of the American Left to form and to support and nurture and to appreciate organization?

Remer: Right. So how do you envision the creation of that organization? Because essentially it seems like we’re back to square one. Labor unionization rates in the private sector have dropped below 7%, I believe, which is lower than any point essentially since the founding of the labor movement in the United States. It seems like there is no socialist movement to speak of in the United States, certainly nothing like in 1912, and so I think your analysis is totally spot-on. The key thing in the United States is the organization of the Left, but the level of political consciousness on the Left is fairly low; there are a lot of disparate groups on the Left that have in some ways become disillusioned by the failure of any kind of organized coherent movement to emerge, and so the question is: concretely, what measures do you think would need to be taken in order to reverse these trends?

Wolff: I think two things above alleverything you say is correct, but, again, I would qualify only by saying that if you go to the Left in Europe, for example, it also has many little disparate groups, it also has lots of in-fighting among these groups that is counter-productive to the development of the kinds of mass powerful organizations that are needed, but nonetheless, because of the, as you put it, consciousness about the need and the value of organization, those differences can be overcome in various ways, particularly when electoral politics is the issue. And again, I would point to Greece, but also France and Spain and others, if you want to talk about where they’re moving. Here in the United States two things have to be achieved. You have to persuade the Left, which as I say to you is much larger and, with all of its problemsand you’re right, and the level of political consciousness and theoretical awareness and having learned from the experiences and debates of the Left in the past, all of that is underdeveloped in the United Statesbut with all of that spoken, just to make it very personal, I, as a person with my perspective, I have done more public speaking in the United States in the last three years than in the previous forty-five. I leave on Tuesday, I’m on a speaking tour in California, I give three speeches in the Los Angeles area, then I move up and give three speeches in the Bay Area. Some of these speeches are to auditoriums with upwards of a thousand people in them, who have paid money to buy tickets to listen to me. Nothing like that ever happened to me before. These are signs of a level of interest in what I say from a Marxist and socialist critical perspective, that I never expected to see in my lifetime. So I can give you firsthand witness account evidence of a level of interest and a sophistication and even an urgency to become part of something that I have never seen since I was born in Youngstown, Ohio many, many years ago. So there’s something going on in the United States, of which the Occupy movement was an explosive temporary moment. I think as Americans now confront the long-term decline in their standard of living that is going on, and they stop having silly illusions that it’s going to be a short dip, that voting for Tweedle-Dum or Tweedle-Dee Republican or Democrat isn’t going to make a hill of beans difference in all of this, that they will become more and more agitated, more and more upset, more and more interested and willing to go in other directions, so I’m quite confident about that. What I’m not confident about and worried about is whether we can overcome the antipathy to organization on the Left that is the legacy of what happened after World War II. That runs deep. If you, I don’t know if you’re active in these ways, but if you begin to be active in labor unions, you very quickly discover the scars of that happened in that period that makes union leaders, for example, very nervous about making alliances with left-leaning social groups outside of the workplace, whether they be in churches, or student organizations, or community organizations, or movements focused on social ills of one kind or another, the natural allies, if you ally it to the labor movement, are precisely the ones about whom the labor movement entertains very old but unfortunately very deep skepticism. They don’t want to get caught up in another McCarthyism that was so bad for the unions. So I think there lies the key variable: can we figure out ways to overcome the hesitancy of the American Left to form and to support and nurture and to appreciate organization? A word about one word I just said: support. On the right, you have, whether it’s the Koch brothers or countless other business and wealthy people, to whom right-wing groups can go for the funding needed to build and sustain organizations, or at least help along the way. The Left in America has its wealthy people. It doesn’t have the business community, the way the right does, but it has some, and it certainly has wealthy people, but it is remarkable to me how more difficult it is for those people to find it in their hearts and minds the logic, if you like, the feeling that it’s important to provide financial support, because an organization is very valuable, anyone who’s trying to do that should be given a leg upthis is one symptom of what has to be overcome so that the appreciation for organization begins to take hold. Last point on this: the Syriza election in Greece. Make no mistake, that is a very important historic event. It has not been understood in the United States yet, as most events in Europe and Greece are not understood, but let me assure you, it will be, because what is going on in Europe is going to cross the Atlantic and come here. What Syriza is is a demonstration, concretely and precisely, that it is possible for a disparate group of left-wing criticssome more left-wing, some less left-wingbut it is possible for an array of left-wing critics of the system to overcome their differences, to become allies, to form together a new political party, to appeal to the population as such, not muting neither its criticism from the left, nor its internal differences, and eventually win an election and become the government. I don’t know how familiar you are, but the victory of Syriza is something that would be called in the United States a mandate. Greece has many parties. It’s not like the United States. And for any one party to be one or two votes short of a clear majority is very rare in Greek politics. So it’s not just that Syriza won, it’s that Syriza won in a way that the traditional parties in Greece, their counterparts to Republicans and Democrats here, could not do and did not do. And so it is an amazing achievement, and it will, as it percolates through, as people like me move across the United States to tell the Left what it means, and I’m far from the only one, it will sink in that here’s a demonstration that our disunity can be complemented, can be overcome, not by an evisceration of our differencesthat wouldn’t be good to do even if we could, and we can’tbut rather, by a way of seeing a political movement forward, when we thought it was somehow impossible. That we had somehow been stymied, we couldn’t trust each other, we couldn’t collaborate, all of that is being undone in Greece by that election. And just as important, because Greece is after all still a very small country, much the same story is being written in Spain, and Spain is the fourth-largest economy in Europe, and it is a very different example. If the Podemos people can do in Spain with the elections in December of this year what Syriza did at the beginning of this year, we’re talking about a sea change that will not escape its impact in the United States.

What Syriza is is a demonstration, concretely and precisely, that it is possible for a disparate group of left-wing critics…to overcome their differences, to become allies, to form together a new political party,…and eventually win an election.

Lo: All right. Professor, if you have a few moments, we want to squeeze in a final, quick question then, one that’s more about your experience at Yale back in the 1960s. We’re curious about what the Left looked like back when you were at Yale, and some of your reflections or descriptions would be very interesting for us to hear.

Wolff: OK. I came to Yale in 1964. I came as a graduate student in economicsactually, it was a special program in economic history, so what I chose to do was get a PhD in economics at the same time that I got a master’s degree in history. When we came in under this special program, we had to declare whether we wanted the PhD in economics and a master’s in history or a PhD in history and a master’s in economics. I chose the former, and that’s what I did. I went through and got my masters in history from Yale and my PhD from Yale. I stayed there from 1964 to 1969. During that time, Yale was an actual buzz of political activity. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it’s clear to me that things were much, much more active in those days. The big issues were two: basically, inequality, an inequality that was so palpable in the New Haven-Yale relationship that it drove a group of Yale students to establish through the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] organization a kind of project in a black neighborhood, the Hill neighborhood of New Havenit’s in the area around the Yale-New Haven Hospital. Some of the key people thereJohn WilhelmI don’t know if you know him; he went on to become the head of one of the biggest unions in the United States, but he was a Yale undergraduate at that time, and he together with others were busy working on that question. That started in the middle ’60s. When I arrived the issue that became very big very quickly was the Vietnam War, and we established a Yale- New Haven committee against the war in Vietnam. We took buses to Washington to participate in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Those were the times when all sorts of people got on those busesand I know, because I was in charge of the buses. Later, there were people in high office in this country who later blatantly told the TV camera that they’d never participated in these demonstrations, but I was on the bus with them and I know very well that they did, but I’ll put that aside for the moment. In any case, there was very big activity, and to give you an idea of how it mushroomed: in 1966, we were strong enoughthose of us on the campus were mostly graduate students working in the anti-war committee, but there were undergraduates also, and those of us working in the Hill neighborhood of New Haventhat we got together, and we decided that we could and we should run for office. That’s right: make a political party. We called it the American Independent Movement (AIM), and in 1966, we encountered a professor at Yale, an assistant professor of sociology named Robert Cook, and we ran him for Congress in the 3rd Congressional District of Connecticut, which includes New Haven and its suburbs, in one direction as far as Milford, and in the other direction as far as Guilford, and places like Hampden, about thirteen surrounding towns. And we did very well [for] having never done this before. I was the fundraiser; my job as a graduate student was to raise the money. And Bob Cook, who no one had ever heard of before, who didn’t run as a Democrat, who didn’t run as a Republican, ran as an independent on this AIM ticket, came in with 5% of the votewhich, for a new start with no background and no support, was an amazing achievement. We also ran two years later an African-American from the Hill neighborhood for the state assemblyFred Harris by nameand I think we ran Bob Cook again, but my memory isn’t all that good. But it was very exciting. We discoveredof coursethat there were people at Yale in the faculty, at Yale in the administration, at Yale in the library, at Yale in the technical schools, and my class, we discovered people all through that region in the suburbs, many of whom had no relationship to Yale at all, who thanked us, because now finally there would be something that they could vote for that they actually believed in, and that was the 5 or 6 percent that we were able to get from the outset. And what we also discovered was that there was three or four times that many people who agreed with us, but who were convinced that it wasn’t reasonable, it wasn’t a useful use of their vote to vote for someone that had no chance to win, so they were going to vote for the Democrat, because it was important to support the Democrat in order to defeat the Republican. To which our answer was then, as it would be now: if you behave that way, you guarantee the continuation of having to behave that way. The only way you’re ever going to have a chance to do something otherwise, to vote for an alternative you believe in that actually has a chance, is you’ve got to come with us now. I think, had we been able to sustain and continue the work that we’d done in the 1960s, we would have gotten to that point. And to give you an example, not that many years later, in 1985, when I still lived in New HavenI’d gotten my degree at Yale, I taught at Yale for a couple years, but I’d moved on to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; I still lived in New HavenI ran for mayor of New Haven, this time on the New Haven Green Party ticket. And running for mayor, I got ten percent of the vote in 1985. In 11 of the 30 wards of New Haven, I came in second after the Democrat. I beat the Republicans in 11 out of 30 wards. Two years later, in 1987, I ran again on the Green Party ticket for the Board of Aldermen. I ran for Ward 10, which is on Lawrence and Orange Streetsit’s a short walk from the Yale campusand I got 47% of the vote for the ward. If I had stayed in New Haven, I’d be on the city council and who knows where else, even though I maintained my critical perspective. I didn’t hide what I thought. We worked as an independent party. The Green Party to this day has a presence in New Haven because of the early work we did then, and even the current mayor is a person I know because I had to work with her and others way back when she was a little more open to that kind of stuff than I think she probably is now. So anyway, you can see that Yale was a place, once upon a time, in which critical Left political activity was huge. The students basically drove the CIA recruiters off of campus. All kinds of things were done. Left-wing faculty were brought into Yale only because the students made a stink about it. The students in economics, which is what I know best, pressured the economics department (I was among them) to bring in radicals, because our curriculum was devoid of that perspective. Our education was lopsided and one-sided in a way that wasand remainsunconscionable if you have any idea of honesty in terms of how you teach a new generation. And we were successful. We were able to get radical faculty. Now, they were never kept there very long; they were hardly ever given tenure; we weren’t strong enough to do that. But we were strong enough at least to bring them into a position of teachingand indeed, a good number of us as graduate students were ourselves teachers, me among them. I had many classes that I taught at Yale in economics and the professors knew where I was coming from, and that was OK. We were strong enough to insert a dissenting perspective on the conventions of mainstream economics, and that too was part of the ferment of the 1960s.

Lo: Wow, that sounds like a very exciting time, compared to what it’s like now.

Wolff: But I don’t want to misrepresent it. It was always a minority of the faculty that had the courage. I think a huge percentage of the faculty was quite sympathetic to us. I won’t mention names, but all kinds of very famous economics professors who knew me personally because I was an advanced graduate student at that time told me about their sympathy but told me that they were frankly afraid to sign something or to get out and give a talk at a rally because of what the deans and the higher-ups there would do. But having said that, it was also impressive how many of the faculty weren’t afraid and were willing to come, and that of course helped us, because if you’re appealing to studentsas we mostly wereit was very helpful to have important, well-known professors coming to our rallies and giving talks and showing their solidarity. I remember one who was a famous teacher at Yale, a political scientist named Robert Dahl. I don’t know if you still read his work. He was good that way. He lent his name, he would show up, and because he was a senior tenured professor in the political science department, because he was on every committee Yale had, because he was a good Yale mascot, it was powerful to have him. He wasn’t the only one by far. In the economics department there was also a senior tenured professor named Robert Triffin. He too was very supportive and would give his name, and there were a whole smattering of professors from various parts of the university who showed their solidarity, and they of course made it easier for us to show students that this wasn’t something a tiny handful of wild-eyed students were doing but was something that had real bite and support. It wasn’t a situation of an isolated handful of us trying to do something. We were in much better shape than that, both in terms of a support in the larger community of Yale and then also in the support beyond Yale. It was a lesson for students when we’d have a demonstration at Yale and there would be several hundred students, but there would also be 200 people from the community mingling with the students and talking about their shared interests and feelings. It was a lesson for the Yale students to begin to get a sense of how much anger there was in the New Haven area about what Yale did and didn’t do in the community. That was an interesting byproduct of all of this. So yes, it was in fact an exciting time. I can assure you that I was much more excited about that than I was about what was going on in the classroom on the way to my PhD.

Lo: We had a bit of that when Harp was running, because it was breaking the twenty-year rule of John DeStefano, and also with a whole sea change of alders who ran with union support, and the graduate student union being in the closer stage of forming a union. There were certain movementssmall, but steadily growing.

Wolff: And by the way, as a graduate student, one of my first activities at Yale was actually helping Local 35 in its initial drive to organize the clerical and technical union, the one that later became Local 34, because they used graduate students early on, when the union either didn’t have the money or it didn’t have the support, to help them identify sympathetic workers at Yale. I remember that was one of my earliest connections with that union, as it was for other undergrads. John Wilhelm, who became the head of the entire parent union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (of which Local 34 and 35 are a part), was a Yale undergraduate in those years and worked very closely with me, and he ended up being brought into that union and ended up being the national president. That’s a union with several hundred thousand members. So Yale’s relationship was close enough that it made it possible for a Yale undergraduate, an active leftist at the time, to be brought into the union, move up through the union, etc. It’s an interesting part of that story.

Image: iTabloid

Advertisements