* Longtime Professor of Economics
* Was called “America’s most prominent Marxist economist” by The New York Times Magazine in 2012
* Was a founding member of the New Haven (Connecticut) Green Party
* Board member of the Left Forum
* A leading member of the Online University of the Left
Richard D. Wolff was born on April 1, 1942 in Youngstown, Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard College in 1963, a master’s degree in economics from Stanford University in 1964, a master’s degree in history from Yale in 1967, and PhD in economics from Yale in 1969. His doctoral dissertation was published in 1974 as The Economics of Colonialism: Britain and Kenya. Wolff is also the author and co-author of several other books, including: (a) Capitalism Hits the Fan; (b) Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism; (c) Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism (written with David Barsamian); and (d) Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian (written with Stephen Resnick). In 2012, The New York Times Magazine described Wolff as “probably America’s most prominent Marxist economist.”
Over the course of his professional academic career, Wolff taught economics at Yale University (1967-69), City College of New York (1969-73), and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (1973-2008). Since 2008, he has served as Professor of Economics Emeritus at Amherst. He also has been a visiting professor at the New School in New York City and has taught a number of courses at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan.
In 1988 Wolff co-founded the Association of Economic and Social Analysis, which produced a quarterly journal titled Rethinking Marxism. He still sits on that publication’s advisory board, along with such notables as Cornel West and Frederic Jameson. A former colleague on the same board was the late Manning Marable.
Wolff’s economic philosophy seeks to develop “a new approach to political economy,” one that “retains and systematically elaborates the Marxist notion of class as surplus labor” but “rejects the economic determinism typical of most schools of economics and usually associated with Marxism as well.” In his public speeches and statements, Wolff frequently emphasizes his belief that the American Left must organize itself into a party that is more radical than the Democrats if it is to have any hope of “defeat[ing] the current program of corporations and the rich that aims to return the U.S. to the unequal income and wealth distributions of the late nineteenth century.”
In October 2009, Wolff wrote that capitalism is replete with a number of “inherent” fatal flaws, most notably its “unstoppable,” recurring “tendency to crisis.” Between 2007 and 2013 he repeatedly blamed capitalism for the U.S. economic recession and the weak recovery that followed, and he was generally critical of “austerity” proposals advocating fiscal responsibility by government. Wolff stated, among other things, that “by blocking realization of a decent, livable wage for all workers, the system [had] generated its own deep crisis.” That crisis, said Wolff, had political as well as economic ramifications, as it “produced a resurgent right in the tea parties” who “blamed the crisis on poor people abusing credit, immigrants abusing U.S. law and institutions, and governmental economic interventions.” In short, Wolff charged, “the right sought to use the crisis to advance the classic capitalist agenda of maximizing wealth, income and freedoms for the corporate elites and the richest 1 percent to 10 percent of individuals.”
In 2012, Wolff founded a nonprofit group called Democracy at Work (DaW), which produces “anti-capitalist, progressive media.” Asserting that “we can do better than capitalism” and its “increasingly dysfunctional … organization of production,” DaW calls for a “social transition from capitalist to cooperative enterprises as a necessary remedy for a capitalist system increasingly generating unacceptable economic and social outcomes.”
In July 2013, Wolff wrote that because of capitalism’s built-in inequities, “the mass of Americans earn too little” while “the richest 10 percent and the large corporations hoard unprecedented amounts that they do not invest.” He told Bill Moyers in a 2013 interview that “for the majority of people, capitalism is not delivering the goods.”
Opposed to hierarchical corporate structures where employers have more power and earn more money than their workers, Wolff in 2013 suggested that “we ought to have stores, factories and offices in which all the people who have to live with the results of what happens to that enterprise participate in deciding how it works.” “The disparity between secretaries’ pay packages and those of ‘professionals,’” he said, was an illogical and unjustifiable consequence of capitalist societies’ misguided “systems of beliefs, expectations, and assumptions about how the world works and ought to work.” “If and when secretaries stopped accepting the cultural rationales for their situation,” Wolff added, “they could ally with other workers [who are] similarly unjustly treated to change the whole system.”
Wolff admired and supported the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged in 2011, calling it “an important first new step to recreate a mass movement with the power to fundamentally challenge U.S. capitalism.” In his estimation, “a new, more or less socialist left” was “slowly emerging” in the U.S. because “those who suffer” had gradually come to understand that their pain was “caused by the deep irrationality of capitalism” and its corrosive “wealth and income inequalities.” These people’s attention, said Wolff, “will sooner or later rise from a focus on fixing the system to fundamentally changing it”—at which point “the rediscovery of the rich accumulated theoretical and practical tradition of socialism resumes,” and “Marx and Marxism are rediscovered.”
Following Janet Yellen’s appointment to the position of Federal Reserve chair in February 2014, Wolff authored a piece recalling the experiences that he and Yellen had shared years earlier when they were both graduate students of economics at Yale University. Published on the left-leaning The Guardian, and featured on BillMoyers.com, the article noted that even though Wolff and Yellen had both been trained in Keynesian economics at Yale, they had been encouraged “to accept capitalism as the sole object and focus of our studies, to celebrate it as the best possible system and to preserve it against its own serious faults.” Wolff lamented that, unlike himself, Yellen most likely had internalized the pro-capitalist values advocated by Yale. Wrote Wolff:
“[A]fter Yale, Janet Yellen and I took different paths in our approaches and experiences working within US capitalism. Ever the liberal Democrat, she endorses capitalism despite its cyclical and colossal waste of resources and the human tragedy this imposes across the globe. No courses at Yale troubled Yellen or myself with any analyses of how exploitation lies at the core of capitalist production. We were never taught that the majority of industrial workers produce more value for employers than what employers pay them. We were prevented from encountering arguments examining how this idea of ‘more’ (or, in economic terms, of a surplus) contributed fundamentally to the systemic inequalities that define capitalist societies.
“No irritating Marxism was allowed to disturb the deep, unquestioned political tranquility that professors embedded in Yale’s graduate economics curriculum. The celebration of the free competitive market, although often extended rhetorically to the free marketplace of competing ideas, was suspended in the case of Marxian concepts and analyses of capitalist economies. The latter were systematically excluded at Yale as at most US universities then and ever since: no free marketplace of ideas there.”
Wolff was disgusted by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in November 2016, and he blamed capitalism for that outcome. Moreover, he claimed that recent presidents from both major political parties were excessively wedded to capitalism as their preferred economic system. Wrote Wolff in an article titled “Capitalism Itself is to Blame for Donald Trump”:
“To cut to the core, the issue is capitalism. This system has generated stagnant wages for 40 years, coupled with rising inequality and debts and declining job benefits, security and public services. Established leaders in both major parties oversaw these outcomes and did nothing to reverse them. Republicans eagerly facilitated the mechanisms that delivered rising pain to workers; Democrats did little to slow them. Each party blamed the other, since that neatly avoided blaming the system. Voters were then constrained to choose between two mutually blaming managers of their deteriorating conditions.
“Rising mass upset was stoked by repeated presidential elections in which candidates promised to change these conditions. The last, President Barack Obama, exemplified and underscored change by virtue of his skin. Yet his presidency, like that of his predecessors, betrayed hopes for significant change. Both party establishments were fully embedded in capitalism’s systemic trajectory of rising inequality punctuated by instability (successive downturns culminating in the 2008 crash).
“Donald Trump, like Obama, once again offered hope for change to those hurt over the last 40 years. Having never served in government before, he underscored his differences from both party establishments by highlighting his status as an outsider…. [But] why expect Trump to make any basic systemic changes? He will more likely make deals. Nor would he succeed if he tried to change how capitalism works. Even ‘strongmen’ types such as Hitler and Mussolini with loyal mass movements behind them made deals with their dominant capitalist establishments. Lacking such movement backing, Trump more urgently needs deals with leading capitalists who have done very well in capitalism’s last 40 years; they will, again, block change.”
In that same November 2016 piece, Wolff identified an emerging “new left politics” — namely, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement — as symbols of hope for “democratizing enterprises” that could “finally address and transform the systemic roots of so many of this country’s problems.”
In a video interview with Thom Hartmann in August 2019, Wolff suggested that capitalism tended to promote a system of “white supremacy” that primarily benefited “white men” at the expense of women and blacks, who were typically the “first fired” and the “last hired” during the periodic economic downturns that capitalism seemed to experience “every four to seven years.” “[W]e give the permanent job, the job least likely to be bounced out when we have these downturns, to the white men,” Wolff explained, “and they get that kind of privilege. They’ve always had that.” Meanwhile, added Wolff, “the secondary people, the repressed people,” are blamed for their failure to thrive in such a system – a “wonderful example of blaming the victim.”
The “full horror” of capitalism, said Wolff in that same 2019 interview, had gained significant momentum in 2008 because Barack Obama’s election as president caused white men to become “terrified” that the nonwhite “people that they’ve been victimizing” by means of capitalism were beginning to rise up against them – a fear that unleashed “the white supremacy we see now.” “The white people in America having been given this peculiar privilege, had of course in the back of their mind a guilt,” Wolff elaborated. “You don’t have to be a psychologist to see it. They kind of know even without admitting it that they’re in this privileged position, and so they have the behavior that’s typical of guilty people.” Wolff concluded his interview by warning that “we’re in for quite a stormy time” in American society because of the “convergence of an unstable economic system that has kept itself going by setting people against each other.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading rapidly through the American population in August 2020, Wolff published The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us from Pandemics or Itself. A collection of over 50 essays denouncing free-market economies, the book argued that the devastating effects of the pandemic underscored the need to “transition toward a new economic system that works for all of us.”
In an October 2020 interview with the leftist publication, Salon, Wolff stated that capitalism “is uniquely incapable of securing public health” in a time of crisis such as the COVID pandemic. As evidence for that claim, he pointed to the fact that “it is not profitable for a private, profit-driven competitive capitalist to produce [surgical or N-95] masks by the millions, or [disposable rubber] gloves, or ventilators, or hospital beds, or all the rest of them.”
In a June 2023 article titled “Market Fundamentalism Is an Obstacle to Social Progress,” Wolff delivered yet another broadside against capitalism. Some key excerpts:
“A changing world order, a shrinking US empire, migrations and related demographic shifts, and major economic crashes have all enhanced religious fundamentalisms around the world. Beyond religions, other ideological fundamentalisms likewise provide widely welcomed reassurances. One of the latter—market fundamentalism—invites and deserves criticism as a major obstacle to navigating this time of rapid social change. Market fundamentalism attributes to that particular social institution a level of perfection and ‘optimality’ quite parallel to what fundamentalist religions attribute to prophets and divinities.
“Yet markets are just one among many social means of rationing. Anything scarce relative to demand for it raises the same question: Who will get it and who must do without it? The market is one institutional way to ration the scarce item. In a market, those who want it bid up its price leading others to drop out because they cannot or will not pay the higher price. When higher prices have eliminated the excess of demand over supply, scarcity is gone, and no more bidding up is required. Those able and willing to pay the higher prices are satisfied by receiving distributions of the available supply.
“The market has thus rationed out the scarce supply. It has determined who gets and who does not. Clearly, the richer a buyer is, the more likely that buyer will welcome, endorse, and celebrate ‘the market system.’ Markets favor rich buyers. Such buyers in turn will more likely support teachers, clerics, politicians, and others who promote arguments that markets are ‘efficient,’ ‘socially positive,’ or ‘best for everyone.’
“Yet even the economics profession—which routinely celebrates markets—includes a sizable—if underemphasized—literature about how, why, and when free (unregulated) markets do not work efficiently or in socially positive ways. That literature has developed concepts like ‘imperfect competition,’ ‘market distortions,’ and ‘externalities,’ to pinpoint markets failing to be efficient or benefit social welfare. Social leaders who have had to deal with actual markets in society have likewise repeatedly intervened in them when and because markets worked in socially unacceptable ways. Thus, we have minimum wage laws, maximum interest-rate laws, price-gouging laws, and tariff and trade wars. Practical people know that ‘leaving matters to the market’ has often yielded disasters (such as the crashes of 2000, 2008, and 2020) overcome by massive, sustained governmental regulation of and intervention in markets.
“So then why do market fundamentalists celebrate a rationing system—the market—that in both theory and practice is more replete with holes than a block of Swiss cheese? Libertarians go so far as to promote a “pure” market economy as a realizable utopia. Such a pure market system is their policy to fix the massive problems they admit exist in contemporary (impure) capitalism. Libertarians are forever frustrated by their lack of success.
“For many reasons, markets ought not claim anyone’s loyalty. Among alternative systems of rationing scarcity, markets are clearly inferior. For example, in many religious, ethical, and moral traditions, basic precepts urge or insist that scarcity be addressed by a rationing system based on their respective concepts of human need. Many other rationing systems—including the US version used in the Second World War—dispensed with the market system and substituted a needs-based rationing system managed by the government. […]
“Then too the market-based health care system of the United States challenges market fundamentalism: the United States has 4.3 percent of the world population but accounted for 16.9 percent of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. Might the market system bear a significant share of the blame and fault here? So dangerous is the potential disruption of ideological consensus that it becomes vital to avoid asking the question, let alone pursuing a serious answer. […]
“Markets do not reward what is most valuable and essential. They never did. They reward what is scarce relative to people’s ability to buy, no matter the social importance we give to the actual work and roles people play. Markets pander to where the money is. No wonder the rich subsidize market fundamentalism. The wonder is why the rest of society believes or tolerates it.”
In December 2016, Wolff attacked Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist, a website whose stated mission is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Wolff referred to the site as “an ugly attempt to shut down free academic inquiry for teachers and students alike.”
In early August 2019, Wolff penned a piece titled “Grades Are Capitalism in Action. Let’s Get Them Out of Our Schools.” Characterizing “meritocracy ideology” — i.e., grading — as an academic expression of the capitalist economic values that he so passionately detested, Wolff wrote:
“The capitalist economic system has major failures. It generates extreme, socially divisive inequalities of wealth and income. It consistently fails to achieve full employment. Many of its jobs are boring, dangerous and/or mind-numbing. Every four to seven years, it suffers a mysterious downdraft in which millions of people lose jobs and incomes, businesses collapse, falling tax revenues undermine public services, and so on. If these failures were widely perceived as the inherent failures of the capitalist system, the desirability and thus sustainability of capitalism itself might vanish.
“How, then, has capitalism survived? Its persistence can best be explained in terms of ideology. The system produces and disseminates interpretations of its failures that blame these problems not on capitalism itself, but on other altogether different ‘causes.’ Institutions have developed mechanisms to anchor such interpretations widely and deeply in the popular consciousness.
“One key example is the concept of ‘meritocracy.’ Schools are a key institution that teaches and practices meritocracy via the mechanism of grading. From primary school through the completion of my doctorate, I suffered the imposition of grades (A, B, C, etc.). Since becoming a professor, I have constantly been required to assign grades to my students for matters such as papers, exams and class performance.
“Grading takes up much of my time that could be better spent on teaching or otherwise directly interacting with students. Meanwhile, grading has little educational payoff for students. It disrespects them as thinking people. And finally, it chiefly serves employers — but often in ways that are not much good for them either. In short, grading remains an immensely wasteful, ineffective and largely negative aspect of education at all levels: primary education, secondary education and higher education. …
“Would not education be best achieved if students and teachers together were able to discuss, compare and debate their respective interpretations of questions, answers, issues and analyses? If all that were done — a very rare scenario in the U.S. educational system today — why also assign a grade? It would add little of substance. …
“Grades also function as a major foundation and support for the meritocracy. The merit ideology functions as a crucial defense mechanism for capitalism given its failures. The U.S. idea of meritocracy asserts that one can quantitatively rank individuals’ qualitative capacities. Each individual’s work skills, production capabilities, contributions to output — as well as their intelligence, discipline, social skills, and much more — can be ranked. This framework holds that there are some individuals who best or most possess such qualities; some who possess the worst or least of them; and many who occupy positions between those two quantitative extremes.
“Within the framework of meritocratic ideology, employers seek to hire the ‘best’ employee and are willing to pay such individual workers more than they pay workers with ‘less’ merit (ranked lower on some scale of productivity). In meritocratic logic, those offered no jobs can only blame themselves: They must assume they have too little merit. Workers learn in school to seek to accumulate merit and achieve higher rankings along the scales that count for employers. Coalitions of educators and employers have inserted the educational system into this merit system as an important place to acquire and accumulate merit that employers will recognize and reward. Better jobs and rising pay reward rising merit acquired through more education as well as ‘on-the-job’ training. …
“Meritocracy and the educational system’s key place within it are important because capitalism’s survival depends on them. The merit system organizes how individual employees interpret the unemployment they suffer, the job they hate, the wage or salary they find so insufficient, the creativity their job stifles, and so on. It starts as schools train individuals to accept the grades assigned to them as measures of individual academic merit. That prepares them to accept their jobs and incomes as, likewise, measures of their individual productive merit. Under this framework, unequal grades, jobs and income can all be seen as appropriate and fair: Rewards are supposedly proportional to one’s individual merit.
“This paradigm leaves little room for any systemic criticism. Inadequate educations are not blamed on an inadequate educational system unable or unwilling to fund high-quality mass schooling. Unemployment, bad jobs, and insufficient incomes are not blamed on the capitalist economic system. Had they been so blamed, both systems could well have come under criticism and opposition and died off long ago.
“Meritocracy redirects the blame for capitalism’s failures onto its victims. Schools teach meritocracy, and grading is the method.”
In an April 2022 article titled “The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine” – a war that had started in February when Russia invaded its neighbor to the west — Wolff declared that the “war in Ukraine is the latest chapter in the history of capitalism, empire, and war.” The “entire world,” he said, was “caught up in the decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another.” “Perhaps the greatest tragedy lies in not recognizing the responsibility of the capitalist system with its markets of competing enterprises run/dominated by the minorities we call employers,” Wolff added, articulating his hope that “the war in Ukraine can awaken an awareness of its capitalist roots and teach people to explore alternative systemic solutions.” “If so,” he concluded, “this war and the resulting devastation from it could lead to an important turning point that eventually results in some positive outcomes in the future.”
Wolff advocates a universal, government-run healthcare structure, which he believes would lower healthcare costs overall because a “government company … doesn’t have to make a profit and can provide therefore services at a lower price.”
As of 2023, Wolff had an estimated net worth of $1 million to $5 million.
In addition to his aforementioned activities, Wolff has served variously as: (a) the host of Economic Update, a weekly one-hour radio program on New York’s WBAI, which is part of Pacifica Radio; (b) a board member of the Left Forum, along with such notables as Stanley Aronowitz and Frances Fox Piven; and (c) a leading member of the Online University of the Left, a Marxist “Left Unity” project initiated in 2012 by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and organized by Carl Davidson.