Karl Marx & the Flaws of Capitalism: Lex Fridman Talks with Professor Richard Wolff

Lex Frid­man, a Russ­ian-Amer­i­can com­put­er sci­en­tist and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence researcher, hosts a pop­u­lar pod­cast where he often inter­views aca­d­e­mics and helps them reach a sur­pris­ing­ly large audi­ence. In recent weeks, he’s had long and wide-rang­ing con­ver­sa­tions with NYU social psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt, Prince­ton his­to­ri­an Stephen Kotkin (on the his­to­ry of Rus­sia and the Ukraine war), and Stan­ford his­to­ri­an Nor­man Naimark (on geno­cide). Above you can now find his con­ver­sa­tion with Marx­ist econ­o­mist, Richard Wolff.

Frid­man pref­aces the lengthy con­ver­sa­tion by say­ing, “This is a heavy top­ic, in gen­er­al, and for me per­son­al­ly, giv­en my fam­i­ly his­to­ry in the Sovi­et Union, in Rus­sia and Ukraine. Today, the words Marx­ism, Social­ism and Com­mu­nism are used to attack and divide, much more than to under­stand and learn. With this pod­cast, I seek the lat­ter. I believe we need to study the ideas of Karl Marx, as well as their var­i­ous imple­men­ta­tions through­out the 20th and 21st cen­turies.… We need to con­sid­er seri­ous­ly the ideas we demo­nize, and to chal­lenge the ideas we dog­mat­i­cal­ly accept as true, even when doing so is at times unpleas­ant and dan­ger­ous.”

You can lis­ten to their engag­ing con­ver­sa­tion above, or find it on var­i­ous pod­casts plat­forms. Along the way, Wolff under­scores the glar­ing defi­cien­cies of cap­i­tal­ism, and why pop­ulists on the left and right are now look­ing for alter­na­tives. And Frid­man asks whether cap­i­tal­ism, despite its faults, may still be the best option we have. Wolff and Frid­man undoubt­ed­ly have dif­fer­ent world­views, but the con­ver­sa­tion is civ­il and deep, and worth your time.

Relat­ed Con­tent

A Short Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Karl Marx

5 Free Online Cours­es on Marx’s Cap­i­tal from Prof. David Har­vey

Marx­ism by Ray­mond Geuss: A Free Course

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Comments (5)
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  • Jonathan says:

    Wow, anoth­er “aca­d­e­m­ic” who’s going to tell us all about the won­ders of social­ism and com­mu­nism. It’s worked in Venezuela, Cuba, the Sovi­et Union, Chi­na, North Korea, and many oth­er love­ly places. Why won’t it work here, in the evil USA? Maybe peo­ple like to have enough to eat for one!

  • Abe says:

    You lost me at.…. sec­ond nr. 10.
    To com­pare serf­dom and slav­ery to employ­ment is so total­ly ridicu­lous…
    Serfs and slaves don’t have any­thing to choose in which orga­ni­za­tion they want to work, the work-con­di­tions and how much they want to work. The polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment is total­ly dif­fer­ent; absolute monar­chies, aris­toc­ra­cies, oli­garchies vs. democ­ra­cy. Serfs and slaves don’t have unions. They can’t start busi­ness­es of their own. Serves and slaves have no say­ing in the expen­di­tures of tax­es. And so on, and so on. …
    Total­ly ridicu­lous!

  • Peter Schaper says:

    I did not lis­ten to the dis­cus­sion. I would have read a tran­script, or at least skimmed it, but AV is a waste of time, so I am not com­ment­ing on the dis­cus­sion, only on the com­ments.

    Jonathan’s irony might be appro­pri­ate if peo­ple in the USA real­ly did have enough to eat, but it is obvi­ous that many don’t, and the US is also very harsh in its treat­ment of its home­less peo­ple, so there is a lot NOT to like about the US sys­tem, not only its gun lob­by, who should all be lined up and shot, like Amer­i­can school chil­dren are, and all their guns destroyed.

    Jonathan is right in say­ing that Com­mu­nism is not the answer, but social­ism could be, but Amer­i­cans insist on equat­ing social­ism with Marx­ism, and because of their mis­guid­ed anti-social­ism they are head­ing for an eco­nom­ic melt-down.

    Com­mu­nism worked briefly in the ear­ly Israeli kib­butz­im. It was not even tried in the Sovi­et Union, Chi­na, etc., the near­est they came to com­mu­nism was enforced Col­lec­tivism, which destroyed the Russ­ian and Chi­nese economies and caused famine and huge loss of life. And all the coun­tries that tried Marx­ism dis­cov­ered its fatal flaw, “the Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Pro­le­tari­at”, the fact that peo­ple who gain absolute pow­er sel­dom will­ing­ly relin­quish it, and the asso­ci­at­ed fact that the rul­ing clique soon was dom­i­nat­ed by one man, Stal­in and Mao and their suc­ces­sors in Rus­sia and Chi­na, right down to Tzar Putin and Emper­or Xi Jin­ping, the Kim fam­i­ly in North Korea, Ho Chi Min in Viet­nam, Pol Pot in Cam­bo­dia, etc. etc. Gor­bachev almost saved Rus­sia, but the total­i­tar­i­an regime had become too firm­ly entrenched. That is how Marx­ism works out.

    Marx­ism is fatal­ly flawed; Com­mu­nism only works when all mem­bers of the com­mune are com­mit­ted to it; Col­lec­tivism does­n’t work at all, because peo­ple wont work hard unless they derive some per­son­al ben­e­fit from doing so; so short of going back to a sub­sis­tence econ­o­my and a barter sys­tem there real­ly does­n’t seem to be any alter­na­tive to Cap­i­tal­ism.

    How­ev­er, Cap­i­tal­ism is also fatal­ly flawed. As cur­rent­ly imple­ment­ed it is a huge Ponzi scheme, requir­ing con­stant growth to remain viable, which is not pos­si­ble in our finite world, and it is huge­ly inequitable because it con­cen­trates wealth in the hands of a priv­i­leged minor­i­ty of ‘investors’ and cor­po­rate high fly­ers, par­a­sites who ‘earn’ mon­ey from mon­ey instead of from hon­est pro­duc­tive work. Inter­est on invest­ments is the pri­ma­ry dri­ver of infla­tion, it increas­es the amount of mon­ey in cir­cu­la­tion with­out pro­vid­ing a pro­por­tion­ate increase in the val­ue of the under­ly­ing econ­o­my, so it is a very effec­tive means of trans­fer­ring wealth from the poor to the rich, by decreas­ing the val­ue of the cur­ren­cy. Because of these fatal flaws in Cap­i­tal­ism we are now head­ing for an eco­nom­ic col­lapse, unless a way is found to share the world’s assets more equi­tably.

    To pre­vent the econ­o­my col­laps­ing, cor­po­ra­tions need to brought under the con­trol of Gov­ern­ments, not vice ver­sa, to set lim­its on their prof­it pre­da­tion, and wealth needs to be dis­trib­uted more equi­tably via an appro­pri­ate social secu­ri­ty sys­tem, prob­a­bly a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income Scheme and pub­lic health ser­vices and pub­lic edu­ca­tion, fund­ed pri­mar­i­ly by tax­es on cor­po­rate and investor prof­its.

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the wealthy will con­tin­ue to avoid tax in their pur­suit of ever greater wealth, and the real incomes of work­ers and the finan­cial­ly dis­ad­van­taged will decrease to the point where retail sales slump because peo­ple can only afford the bare essen­tials, man­u­fac­tur­ing will decrease or stop, the econ­o­my will col­lapse, and the wealthy will dis­cov­er that they can­not eat mon­ey.

    The above is a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the real­i­ty, but it is the guts of it, Cap­i­tal­ism has with­in it the seeds of its own destruc­tion. We can­not main­tain con­stant growth in a world of finite resources. We can­not con­tin­ue to con­cen­trate wealth in a world of finite resources. If the wealthy do not soon start pay­ing tax pro­por­tion­ate to their means, mon­ey will soon stop cir­cu­lat­ing, the econ­o­my will col­lapse, and the wealthy will find that their mon­ey is worth­less. Fund­ing favoured char­i­ties won’t help, the wealthy need to actu­al­ly pay tax pro­por­tion­ate to their means if they are to keep mon­ey cir­cu­lat­ing and keep the econ­o­my viable.

  • Ray Collins says:

    Total mis­un­der­stand­ing of true cap­i­tal­ism, of which it could tru­ly be said, “It has­n’t real­ly been tried.” The above is argu­ing against *cor­po­ratism* and *crony­ism,* which uses the pow­er of gov­ern­ment to enrich some at the expense of oth­ers.

    The very ones who use tar­iffs, spe­cial favors, bribes, black­mail to enrich them­selves and their friends can’t be count­ed on to direct or man­age or con­trol cap­i­tal­ism, because this is what they do. The econ­o­my the U. S. has now is not even close to free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism; it’s a con­trolled oppo­si­tion, like claim­ing Fox News is pro-lib­er­ty.

    In a sys­tem in which peo­ple *vol­un­tar­i­ly* exchange goods, ser­vices, and mon­ey, some ben­e­fit more than oth­ers (good for them; they deserve it), but when cus­tomers are king, they ben­e­fit, if only to have their dol­lars stretch fur­ther when the cost of goods and ser­vices are low­ered via inven­tions and cap­i­tal to fund the pro­duc­tion of them.

    Cap­i­tal­ists would also dis­agree with the asser­tion that it is a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games are the provinces of gov­ern­ments, which steal from some and give to oth­ers (tar­iffs, plun­der, wel­fare, mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al loot­ers, etc.).

  • Penguin Monkey says:

    This cap­i­tal­ism sounds good as a part of a social­ist gov­ern­ment, but you need to give every­one a good an equal start & oppor­tu­ni­ty. Aus­tralia an entire con­ti­nent is owned by 50 mil­lion peo­ple and all of its coasts and nat­ur­al resources are used to brain drain SE Asia of 3 bil­lion peo­ple who were born with few nat­ur­al resources.

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