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

Dying from Overwork: Disturbing Looks Inside Japan’s Karoshi and China’s “996” Work System

By most measures, Japan boasts the highest life expectancy in the world. But that ranking, of course, doesn’t mean that every Japanese person sees old age. Though the country’s rate of violent crime is low enough to be the envy of most of the world, its suicide rate isn’t, and it says even more that the Japanese language has a word that refers specifically to death by overwork. I first encountered it nearly thirty years ago in Dilbert comic strip. “In Japan, employees occasionally work themselves to death. It’s called karōshi,” says Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. “I don’t want that to happen to anybody in my department. The trick is to take a break as soon as you see a bright light and hear dead relatives beckon.”

You can see the phenomenon of karōshi examined more seriously in the short Nowness video at the top of the post. In it, a series of Japanese salarymen (a Japanese English term now well-known around the world) speak to the exhausting and unceasing rigors of their everyday work schedules — and, in some cases, to the emptiness of the homes that await them each night.


The CNBC segment just above investigates what can be done about such labor conditions, which even in white-collar workplaces contribute to the heart attacks, strokes, and other immediate causes of deaths ultimately ascribed to karōshi. In a grim irony, Japan has the lowest productivity among the G7 nations: its people work hard, yet their companies are hardly working.

Initiatives to put a stop to the ill effects of overwork, up to and including karōshi, include mandatory vacation days and office lights that switch off automatically at 10:00 p.m. Among the latest is “Premium Friday,” a program explained in the Vice video above. Developed by Keidanren, Japan’s oldest business lobby, it was initially received as “a direct response to karōshi,” but it has its origins in marketing. “We wanted to create a national event that bolstered consumption,” says the director of Keidanren’s industrial policy bureau. By that logic, it made good sense to let workers out early on Fridays — let them out to shop. But Premium Friday has yet to catch on in most Japanese enterprises, aware as they are that Japan’s economic might no longer intimidates the world.

The aforementioned low productivity, along with a rapidly aging and even contracting population, contributed to Japan’s loss of its position as the world’s second-largest economy. It was overtaken in 2011 by China, a country with overwork problems of its own. The Vice report above covers the “996” system, which stands for working from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m, six days a week. Prevalent in Chinese tech companies, it has been blamed for stress, illness, and death among employees. Laws limiting working hours have thus far proven ineffective, or at least circumventable. Certain pundits never stop insisting that the future is Chinese; if they’re right, all this ought to give pause to the workers of the world, Eastern and Western alike.

Related content:

“Inemuri,” the Japanese Art of Taking Power Naps at Work, on the Subway, and Other Public Places

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopian Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Common

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the English Language

The Employment: A Prize-Winning Animation About Why We’re So Disenchanted with Work Today

What is the Secret to Living a Long, Happy & Creatively Fulfilling Life?: Discover the Japanese Concept of Ikigai

Charles Bukowski Rails Against 9-to-5 Jobs in a Brutally Honest Letter (1986)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: An Animated Video Explaining Key Ideas in Ray Dalio’s New Bestselling Book

Over the past five years, Ray Dalio, one of America’s most successful investors, has published a series of books, each meant to impart wisdom to a younger generation. The first book, Principles: Life and Work, shared the unconventional principles that have guided his life and career. It became a bestseller, selling well over one million copies. Next came Big Debt Crises, a study of financial crises and how nations navigate them. Finally, he has just published his latest bestseller, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. A history of the rise and fall of empires over the last 500 years, the book uses the past to contemplate the future, particularly the fate of the United States and China. As was the case with Principles, Dalio has produced an animated video that explains key ideas in the book. Released in early March, the video has already been viewed 8.6 million times. Watch it above, and consider pairing it with his other animated video, How the Economic Machine Works.

If you would like to get Open Culture post’s via email, please sign up for our free email newsletter here.

And if you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

Related Content 

The Principles for Success by Entrepreneur & Investor Ray Dalio: A 30-Minute Animated Primer

Economics 101: Hedge Fund Investor Ray Dalio Explains How the Economy Works in a 30-Minute Animated Video

Ray Dalio & Adam Grant Launch Free Online Personality Assessment to Help You Understand Yourself (and Others Understand You)

Brian Eno Shares His Critical Take on Art & NFTs: “I Mainly See Hustlers Looking for Suckers”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

It can feel, in our inequality-addled world, that we have little left in common — that there is no “we,” just us and them. But multiple crises driving us apart have the potential to unite the species. After all, a rapidly warming planet and global pandemic do threaten us all, even if they don’t threaten us equally. Do solutions exist in the creation of new forms of private property, new ways of moving capital around the world? Can the extinction-level byproducts of capitalist commodification and waste be mitigated by ingenious new forms of financialization? These seem to be the arguments made by purveyors of cryptocurrency and NFTs, an acronym meaning non fungible tokens and — if you haven’t noticed — the only thing anyone in the art world seems to talk about anymore. Why?

Brian Eno has put his opinion on the matter quite bluntly in a recent interview. “NFTs seem to me just a way for artists to get a little piece of the action from global capitalism,” he tells The Crypto Syllabus. “How sweet — now artists can become little capitalist assholes as well.” He obviously disapproves of using art solely to generate profit, but then if we know anything about Eno’s theory of creativity and influence over the past several decades, it’s that he believes the guiding reason for art is to generate more art.


“If I had primarily wanted to make money I would have had a different career as a different kind of person. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to be an artist.” There’s utterly no use in trying to peg Eno as technophobic or out of touch; quite the contrary. But the fictional financial products that have invaded every other sphere of life have no place in the arts, he argues.

When asked why NFTs are touted as a salvation for artists and the art world by cryptocurrency visionaries, including many of his friends and collaborators, Eno replies:

I can understand why the people who’ve done well from it are pleased, and it’s natural enough in a libertarian world to believe that something that benefits you must automatically be ‘right’ for the whole world. That belief is a version of what I call ‘automaticism’: the idea that if you leave things alone and let something or other – the market, nature, human will – take its course unimpeded you will automatically get a better result than you would by tinkering with it. The people who hold beliefs of this kind don’t have any qualms about tinkering themselves but just want a situation where nobody else gets to tinker. Especially the state.

That the sale of NFTs have only benefitted very few — to the tune of $69 million in a single sale in a recent high-profile case — doesn’t seem particularly troublesome to those who insist on their benefits. Nor do the creators of NFTs seem bothered by the enormous energy overhead required by the technology, “an ecological nightmare pyramid scheme,” writes Synthtopia — of which Eno says: “in a warming world a new technology that uses vast amounts of energy as ‘proof of work’ — that’s to say, simply to establish a certain age of exclusivity — really is quite insane.”

Eno readily answers questions about why NFTs seem so glamorous — it’s no great mystery, just a new form of accumulation, commodification and waste, one in particular that adds nothing to the world while hastening a climate collapse. NFTs are the “readymade reversed,” David Joselit argues: Where “Duchamp used the category of art to liberate materiality from commodifiable form; the NFT deploys the category of art to extract private property from freely available information.”

The discourse around NFTs also seems to liberate art from the category of art, and all that has meant to humankind for millennia as a communal practice, reducing creative productions to digital certificates of authenticity. “I am trying to keep an open mind about these questions,” Eno admits. “People I like and trust are convinced [NFTs] are the best thing since sliced bread, so I wish I could have a more positive view but right now I mainly see hustlers looking for suckers.”

Related Content: 

What are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)? And How Can a Work of Digital Art Sell for $69 Million

What Is Blockchain? Three Videos Explain the New Technology That Promises to Change Our World

Cryptocurrency and Blockchain: An Introduction to Digital Currencies–A Free Online Courses from the University of Pennsylvania 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chinese Youth Announce That They’re “Lying Flat” and Resisting the Pressures of Modern Life

The “Lying Flat” movement taking hold among young people in China involves doing exactly what it suggests: working little, resting a lot, and cultivating the most minimalist lifestyle possible. Unlike Timothy Leary’s 1960’s mantra, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” lying flat, or tang ping (躺平), takes no stance on a countercultural ethos or the consumption of mind-altering drugs. But it has caused the authorities alarm, even among English-language observers. Consider the Brookings Institute headline, “The ‘lying flat’ movement standing in the way of China’s innovation drive.” Standing in the way of innovation is a cardinal sin of capitalism, one reason the “niche Chinese Gen Z meme” of tang ping, Jane Li writes, “is ringing alarm bells for Beijing.”

The phenomenon began — where else — on social media, when 31-year-old former factory worker Luo Huazhong “drew the curtains and crawled into bed,” Cassady Rosenblum writes at The New York Times. Luo then “posted a picture of himself [in bed] to the Chinese website Baidu along with a message: ‘Lying Flat is Justice.’”


His manifesto (above) claimed the “right to choose a slow lifestyle” by doing little work to get by, reading, gardening, exercising, and, yes, lying supine as often as he liked. To further elaborate, Luo wrote, “lying flat is my sophistic movement,” with a reference to Diogenes the Cynic, the Greek philosopher “said to have lived inside a barrel to criticize the excesses of Athenian aristocrats.”

Diogenes did more than that. He and his followers rejected everything about Athenian society, from work and marriage to the abstract reasoning of Plato. Luo might have turned to a more traditional source for “lying flat” — the Daoist principle of wu-wei, or non-doing. But lying flat is not so much about living in harmony with nature as it is a state of exhaustion, a full-body admission that the promises of capitalism — work hard now, rest hard later — have not and will not materialize. They are phantoms, mirages, precisely the kind of fictions that made Diogenes bark with laughter. The truth, Rosenblum writes, is that for “essential” workers at the bottom all the way up to the “inner sanctums” of Goldman Sachs, “work has become intolerable. Rest is resistance.”

In a work culture that celebrates “996” — 12-hour days, six days a week– rest may be the only form of resistance. Political repression and lack of upward mobility have fostered “an almost monastic outlook” in China, writes Li, “including not getting married, not having children, not having a job, not owning property, and consuming as little as possible.” Since picking up tens of thousands of followers online, the lying flat movement has become the target of a censorship campaign aimed at stopping young Chinese workers from checking out. One government-backed newspaper called the movement “shameful,” and news agency Xinhua unfavorably compared “lying flattists” to front-line medical workers. The original manifesto, Lying Flat groups, and message boards where users posted photos of seals, cats, and themselves lying flat have been taken down.

Zijia Song writes of tang ping as partly a response to a traditional Chinese culture of competitiveness and overwork, but notes that there are similar movements in Japan, Korea, and the U.S., where “Black activists, writers and thinkers are among the clearest voices articulating this spiritual malaise and its solutions,” writes Rosenblum, “perhaps because they’ve borne the brunt of capitalism more than other groups of Americans.” Whatever their national origin, each of these statements defiantly claims the right to rest, posing a threat not only to the Party but to an ideal of human life as endless overwork for shiny trinkets and empty promises, during a global pandemic and climate crisis that have revealed to us like nothing else the need to slow down, rest, and completely reimagine the way we live.

Related Content: 

Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Will You Really Achieve Happiness If You Finally Win the Rat Race? Don’t Answer the Question Until You’ve Watched Steve Cutts’ New Animation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Karl Marx Meant by “Alienation”: Two Animated Videos Explain

A common political distortion claims that socialists are lazy and want to live off other people’s labor. Never mind that this description best applies to those who do not work but live off rents, dividends, and tax breaks. A bigger problem with the idea lies in its definition of “work,” conflating labor-for-hire with labor for a purpose. In Karl Marx’s theories, work occupies a central position as a human value. We all want to work, he thought. We are not born, however, wanting to maximize shareholder value.

Marx believed that “work, at its best, is what makes us human,” X-Files star Gillian Anderson tells us in the BBC Radio 4 animation above. “‘It fulfills our species essence,’ as he put it. Work allows us “to live, to be creative, to flourish.” Work in the industrial 19th century, however, did nothing of the kind. You only need to imagine for a moment the soot-filled factories, child labor, complete lack of worker protections and benefits to see the kinds of conditions to which Marx wrote in response. “Work,” says Anderson, in brief, “destroyed workers.”


Under capitalism, Marx maintained, workers are “alienated” from their labor, a concept that does not just mean emotionally depressed or creatively unfulfilled. As early as 1844, over twenty years before the first volume of Capital appeared, Marx would elaborate the concept of “estranged labor”  in an essay of the same name:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity.

In an economy where things matter more than people, people become devalued things: the “realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” Workers are not only spiritually dissatisfied under capitalism, they are alienated from the fruit of their labor “to the point of starving to death.” To be an alienated worker means to be literally kept from things one needs to live.

This is the kind of work Marxists and socialists have opposed, that which grossly enriches a few at the expense of most everyone else. Whether or not we are content with Marxist solutions or feel a need for new theories, every serious student of history, economy, and culture has to come to grips with Marx’s formidable critiques. In the video above, Alain de Botton’s School of Life, a self-described “pro-Capitalist institution,” attempts to do so in ten minutes or less.

“Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow,” says de Botton. “It threatens our planet through excessive consumption, distracts us with irrelevant advertising, leaves people hungry and without healthcare, and fuels unnecessary wars.” It perpetuates, in other words, profound alienation on a massive scale. Of course it does, Marx might respond. That’s exactly what the system is designed to do. Or as he actually wrote, “the only wheels which political economy sets in motion are greed, and the war amongst the greedy — competition.”

Related Content: 

Marxism by Raymond Geuss: A Free Online Course 

A Short Animated Introduction to Karl Marx

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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

Geographer and Marxist scholar David Harvey did not set out to become a Marxist. He didn’t even know what a Marxist was. He simply started to read Marx one day, at the age of 35, because all of the other social science methods he had applied in his study of the housing market and social unrest in US cities “didn’t seem to be working well,” he says in a Jacobin interview. “So, I started to read Marx, and I found it more and more relevant…. After I cited Marx a few times favorably, people pretty soon said I was a Marxist. I didn’t know what it meant… and I still don’t know what it means. It clearly does have a political message, though, as a critique of capital.”

The word “Marxist” has been as much a defamatory term of moral and political abuse as it has a coherent description of a position. But ask Harvey to explain what Marx means in the German philosopher’s massive analysis of political economy, Capital, and he will gladly tell you at length. Harvey has not only read all three volumes of the work many times over, a feat very few can claim, but he has explicated them in detail in his courses at Johns Hopkins and the City University of New York since the 1970s. In the age of YouTube, Harvey posted his lectures online, and they became so popular they inspired a series of equally popular written companion books.

Why study a dead 19th-century socialist? What could he possibly have to say about the world of AI, COVID, and climate change? “I think Marx is more relevant today than ever before,” says Harvey. “When Marx was writing, capital was not dominant in the world. It was dominant in Britain and Western Europe and the eastern United States, but it wasn’t dominant in China or India. Now it’s dominant everywhere. So, I think Marx’s analysis of what capital is and its contradictions is more relevant now than ever.”

To illustrate, and exhaustively explain, the point, Harvey announced by tweet recently that he’s made 5 courses freely available online as videos and podcasts. Find links to all 5 courses below. Or find them in our collection: 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Reading Marx’s Capital Volume 1 with David Harvey – 2019 Edition

Reading Marx’s Capital Volume I with David Harvey – 2007 Edition

Reading Marx’s Capital Volume 2 with David Harvey

Reading Marx’s Grundrisse with David Harvey

Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason

Related Content: 

Marxism by Raymond Geuss: A Free Course 

A Short Animated Introduction to Karl Marx

David Harvey’s Course on Marx’s Capital: Volumes 1 & 2 Now Available Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)? And How Can a Work of Digital Art Sell for $69 Million

Value in the art world depends on manufactured desire for objects that serve no purpose and have no intrinsic meaning outside of the stories that surround them, which is why it can be easy to fool others with fraudulent copies. Collectors and experts are often eager to believe a well-told tale of special provenance. As Orson Welles says in F is for Fake, “Lots of oysters, only a few pearls. Rarity. The chief cause and encouragement of fakery and phoniness.”

“Concepts of fakery and originality bounce off one another as reflections,” Lidija Grozdanic writes of Welles’ documentary on “our innate infatuation with exclusivity,” a film made when the internet consisted of 36 routers and 42 host computers — in total (including a link in Hawaii!). Now we are immersed in hyperreality. Copies of digital artworks are indistinguishable from each other, since they cannot be said to exist in any material sense. How can they be authenticated? How can they become exclusive placeholders for wealth?


The questions have been taken up, and answered rather abruptly, it seems, by the architects of blockchain technology, who bring us NFTs, or “Non-Fungible Tokens,” an acronym and phraseology you’ve surely heard, whether you’ve felt inclined to learn what they mean. The videos featured today offer brief explanations, by reference especially to the case of South Carolina-based digital artist named Mike Winklemann, who goes by Beeple, and who first harnessed the power of NFTs to make millions.

Most recently, in a first-of-its-kind online auction at Christies, Beeple’s montage “‘Everydays — The First 5000 Days’… became the ‘What Does the Fox Say?‘ of art sales,” writes Erin Griffiths at The New York Times.

A crypto whale known only by the pseudonym Metakovan paid $69 million (with fees) for some indiscriminately collated pictures of cartoon monsters, gross-out gags and a breastfeeding Donald Trump — which suddenly makes this computer illustrator the third-highest-selling artist alive.

The criticism is perhaps unfair. As Christies argues in its defense, the piece reveals “Beeple’s enormous evolution as an artist” over five years. Specialist Noah Davis calls the collage, stitched together from Beeple’s body of work on Instagram, “a kind of Duchampian readymade.” But it doesn’t really matter if Beeple’s work is avant-garde high art.

The libertarian econo-speak “nonfungible token” reveals itself as part of a world divorced from the usual criteria art historians, curators, auction houses, and others apply in their judgments of authenticity and worth. Instead, the value of NFTs rests mainly on the fact that they are exclusive, without particularly high regard for what they include. One may love the work of Beeple, but we should be clear, “what Christie’s sold was not an object” — there is no object — “but a ‘nonfungible token,’” which is “bitcoinese for unique string of characters, logged on a blockchain,” that cannot be exchanged or replaced… like owning a Monet without owning a Monet.

Unlike the Wu Tang album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, bought for $2 million in 2015 by Martin Shkreli, content attached to NFTs can be shared, viewed, copied, etc. over and over. “Millions of people have seen Beeple’s art,” the BBC explains, “and the image has been copied and shared countless times. In many cases, the artist even retains the copyright ownership of their work, so they can continue to produce and sell copies.”

Other sales of NFTs include a version of the 10-year-old internet meme Nyan Cat that sold for $600,000, a clip of LeBon James blocking a shot for $100,000, and a picture of Lindsay Lohan for $17,000, which then resold for $57,000. Lohan articulated the NFT ethos in a statement, saying, “I believe in a world which is financially decentralized.” This is not a world where judgments about the value of art and culture can be centralized either. But power can be, presumably, in the form of currency, crypto-and otherwise, traded in speculative bubbles.

“Some people compare it to buying an autographed print,” the BBC writes. Some compare it to the age-old scams warned of in folk tales. David Gerard, author of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, calls NFT sellers “crypto-grifters… the same guys who’ve always been at it, trying to come up with a new form of worthless bean that they can sell for money.” This eternal scam exists beyond the binaries posed by F is for Fake. Originality, authenticity, or otherwise are mostly beside the point.

Related Content: 

The Art Market Demystified in Four Short Documentaries

Banksy Shreds His $1.4 Million Painting at Auction, Taking a Tradition of Artists Destroying Art to New Heights

Warhol: The Bellwether of the Art Market

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.