Capitalism, Raced & Gendered: Farah Tanis and Rick Wolf


Laura: Hi, I'm Laura Flanders. Capitalism's crisis deepens. To many people, it looks more ascendant than ever. The coming to power of a billionaire without even the façade of public service backed by hedge funders and war profiteers. To a lot of people, the rise of Donald Trump and Trump-ism represents the ascendancy galore of capitalism, not its crisis. Economics professor Richard Wolff respectfully disagrees. Wolff is the founder of Democracy at Work, and the host of Economic Update, a weekly podcast, as well as the author of many books, most recently, Capitalism's Crisis Deepens.

In this week's conversation, he's joining Farah Tanis who also believes in building authentic, alternative livelihoods. It's the only way that many communities, especially communities of color, have every survived periods of repression, and it's the way to build the world we want to live in in the future, regardless of who is in the White House. Farah is the co-founder and executive director of Black Women's Blueprint, which recently chaired the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission of black women and sexual assault in the United States. Welcome, both. I couldn't be happier than to be sharing the beginning of this challenging year with the two of you.

Richard Wolff:    Thank you.

Laura Flanders:    Let's start with some descriptions. Farah, how do you describe the situation that we're in? How do you see it?

Farah Tanis:   I can only speak with the hundreds and the thousands, if not the millions, of voices of people of African descent throughout this country who are fearful. Extremely fearful. Fearful about their own present, their economic security, fearful about whether or not their right to make a living, their right to have access to education, their right to not be burdened by debt, you know, even this dream or any vision that they had for themselves, there is this dissipation, there is this disappearing of this hope that we had before, that we could ever, ever get anywhere, even under the Obama presidency. The loss of jobs, it's become more real than ever. The student loan debt has become more real than ever. The lack of access to healthcare, even under Obamacare, has become more real than ever. Whatever little bits that we had, we now feel that we're going to lose. There is, I will be honest in saying this, sheer panic.

Laura Flanders:    What about you, Rick?

Richard Wolff:    I think capitalism is weaker than it's been in my lifetime. I know that when I share cups of coffee with my left-wing and right-wing colleagues, we don't agree on how we got into this mess, and we don't agree on how to get out. We are amazed, as we look at each other over our coffee, that we all agree that this is the worst condition of the American economy in our lifetimes. Yes, you can always find a few statistics that make things look good, but if you look at the overall trajectory, the truth of the matter is we are facing a Trump presidency because the mass of Americans are dissatisfied. That's what the vote for Bernie indicated. That's what Occupy Wall Street began. We are at a time in which the system isn't working for most people. They know it, they just don't know where exactly to go with their understanding. That means capitalism has failed to generate the support among the mass of people, without which its future is very much in doubt.

Laura Flanders:    As I said, a lot of people will look at the last election and say, "American people just elected the gazillionaire who basically run on precisely that." Where do you see the disappointment with capitalism?

Richard Wolff:    I think Hitler, the hallmark of his race was to suggest he's not like the normal routine that has run this society for as long as anyone can remember. Mrs. Clinton lost that election, in my judgement, because she represented the continuation, more or less, of what we've had. Tweedledum, Tweedledee, now this one, now that one, where nothing changes, where the deterioration continues. He said, by being outrageous, and provocative, he said, "I'm different from all of those people." In a society where there's not much hope given for better future, you might as well go with somebody who's different who maybe will change it, than to stay with what you know has been unable or unwilling to make the changes that could affect your life.

Laura Flanders:    Provocative like racist, misogynist?

Richard Wolff:    Not apologizing, not stepping back, but kind of doubling down as he used to do and still does. Saying crazy things. He is articulating the anger, the rage, the wanting to break out of what we've been stuck in, and that got him a lot of sympathy because the alternatives, there was one real one, and that was Bernie. When Mrs. Clinton repressed that, sort of like when Obama repressed Occupy, you took away the opportunity for the American dissatisfaction to go in a left direction, so it went in the other direction that was available.

Laura Flanders:    Mostly not Black dissatisfaction though.

Farah Tanis:    Exactly. That's exactly what I was thinking when you talk about capitalism more recently having failed the population, when you talk about the we that is dissatisfied. For us, capitalism has never worked. You know, we were the original commodity in the United States, when you look at the legacy of slavery. Then when you look at women in general, we were the original commodity worldwide. In terms of the beginning, the birth of capitalism was really on the backs [00:06:00] and on the ownership of women's bodies. That became more and more, and massing of property.

Talking about this election in particular, I think that black folks were in a place where they felt that even with the mistakes of the Obama administration, even with a Hilary Clinton presidency, right, and you talked about Bernie, that was the hope, right, that we would have Bernie, and there would be more of a socialist sort [00:06:30] of system put in place. We've never been confident. We've never been satisfied. We've never received, historically, we have never received our just dues. We can talk about reparations, we can talk about access to education, and to jobs, we can talk about affirmative action. None of these things have done for black people what we hope that they would do.

Laura Flanders:    How come we can't make a winning coalition out of the people that you've just described as unhappy, and the people you've just described as unhappy? What's the problem?

Farah Tanis:    I think that these conversations are not happening enough. I think that with all due respect, that white folks are seeing this one way, because the historical context is very different, and black folks are seeing it in another way because our historical context has been different.

Laura Flanders:    Thoughts, Rick?

Richard Wolff:    I think that we do see these things differently, but that's always been the case. I don't think that'll go away real quickly. I think we can still make a coalition out of the fact that people who see things differently can find enough that they have in common to begin to struggle together. My hope is precisely that the different way in which African Americans and white Americans have come to their current impasse may make them able now to see the value and possibility of coalition in a way that has been much harder in the past.

Laura Flanders:    Do you see any example? Farah, you want to come in?

Farah Tanis:    Around capitalism, I'm not sure that there is, or I think that the work would be a tremendous ... It would be tremendous. It would require tremendous effort on the part of progressives, both on white progressives and black progressives, community-based organizations. We start from the bottom up. The grassroots community, you know, the grassroots community that you saw at the Occupy movement, the white activists, are very different from what you see with the Black Lives Matter movement. The demands are different.

Laura Flanders:    When it comes to this question of alternatives to capitalism, one of the reasons I wanted to bring the two of you together is when I look for models of survival, of solidarity, economics, including many of the worker-determined enterprises that you study and write about Rick, people in leadership are women of color, people of color, immigrants, disproportionately, whether you're talking healthcare workers in New York, or activists in the Jackson, Mississippi area building on the tradition and history of the black land movement. I see the black community as one of the communities with the most expertise on exactly the kind of stuff that you're saying needs to be lifted up as a model. Am I crazy here?

Richard Wolff:   No, I think that in fact this bottom up that Farah talks about is exactly the new direction. That is a new direction for traditionally socialistically-minded people, that they are not about as they were. White people, but all people, I would argue. They aren't any more enamored as they once were about the government coming in and being the progressive force, as opposed to the private. That distinction, that dichotomy is fading. What instead is happening is, it's not about the government. It's about starting at the bottom. In the factory, in the office, in the store, to transform that workplace from the top down, minority running everything. The shareholders, the board of directors, who are inevitably, in this culture, white, or overwhelmingly white-

Laura Flanders:   And male.

Richard Wolff:    And male, that's right. Stop all of that. Make it a one-person, one-vote, everybody who works in the workplace has an equal say in what's produced, and how it's produced. This radical transformation at the base is a new way of defining what progressive means, and allows us in one act of reorganizing production to begin to talk about giving equality where it really counts, to the women, to the non-whites, and others as part of an integrated work force as a project for transformation. I think that is the wave of the future, and it's a new way of defining progressivity that the old establishment isn't ready to confront, because they're still fighting the battle with a socialism that talks about a big government, which isn't the issue anymore.

Farah Tanis:    I think I agree with you in terms of just there needs to be a project for transformation, right? As I said before, it begins with these conversations, but it also begins with acknowledging of course the different paths that we've come, as people of African descent in this country, and white folks in this country. As far as solidarity economy, one of the things that I think that we need to lift up is that solidarity economy exists throughout the world. It's successful throughout the world, and especially throughout the global south. In the United States, to begin to have a conversation around solidarity economy, whether it is about land ownership, whether it is about starting businesses where everyone shares decision-making, everyone shares profits, whether it's a barter network, whether it is a People's Bank, there needs to be trust built.

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