On Wednesday, Jan. 31 the DC chapter of ‘Democracy At Work’ (D@W) will host a free lecture by Dr. Richard Wolff in Northwest DC. The world-renowned Marxian economist will evangelize a model of business ownership and management that replaces stockholders and profit-driven managers with worker-ownership and democratic management, aka the worker-owned cooperative. The event will take place at St. Stephen’s Church at 7pm.
I sat down with D@W DC organizers Cinar Akcin and Kevin Gustafson to talk about the event that they funded out-of-pocket. Akcin works as an economist and Gustafson recently passed the DC Bar Exam but they organize around cooperative business models because of their socialist politics.
“I want the idea of socialism to change from this terrifying, potentially world-destroying ideology that kills millions of people, to what it really is, which is simply working people getting together and running their own lives the way they want. It’s a very American idea,” said Gustafson, “this is individualism just in a cooperative sense. And it’s rugged, doing things your way for yourself.”
The title of the talk will be ‘Beyond The Capitalist Enterprise: The Movement For Worker Coops & What You Can Do.’ Gustafson told me he expects the lecture to cover Wolff’s abridged critique of capitalism, his explanation of coops and why they are important and what avenues there are for the audience to engage with the work of D@W.
Dr. Wolff wrote the book “Democracy At Work: A Cure For Capitalism.” He argued that building markets that foster cooperative business models would democratize the economy. A democratized economy would mean a more powerful labor class. And a more powerful labor class would be a strong base for reclaiming American democracy from the billionaires who have donated their way into political power.
“I think Richard Wolff would be the first to say, ‘I’ve been talking about this for forty years and nobody was interested before, but now there’s this massive groundswell of people really trying to look for an alternative,’” said Akcin. Gustafson connected popular dissatisfaction with capitalism to the 2008 economic crisis. A crisis created through deceit and the brazen attitude of the financial industry.
On D@W’s ‘Economic Update’ podcast Dr. Wolff reviews what he considers to be the most important stories from the last week in a Marxist light. The Facebook page for the podcast has over 5,000 followers, and its Patreon account brings in 5,185 dollars a month from more than 1000 donors.
In the podcast The New School NYC economist sits behind a desk holding papers with the stories he will cover that week. He takes his time to read through and analyze the stories. At the end of the first half-hour he sends the freeloading viewers, the non-subscribers, away and continues with exclusive content for subscribers. Akcin described Wolff as an accomplished, intelligent, compelling economist. He said, “These ideas have been around for a long time, he didn’t invent anything he has just been able to present it in a way that is accessible to a lot of people.”
Akcin, Gustafson, and two of their organizing peers, Matt Wall and Alka Mysore, have been trying to get Dr. Wolff to come to DC for months. They hope that his visit will attract more locals to help them continue to organize around cooperative business in DC.
The D@W campaign has education, outreach and legislative elements. Gustafson told me that DC is rare in that cooperative businesses are recognized in city code thanks to City Councilman David Grosso. However, unlike other business classifications they are not incentivized. Gustafson is working on a campaign to pass legislation that would give cooperatives tax incentives, government contract procurement advantages and other opportunities that are given to traditionally run businesses.
“If you create a system that incentivizes the creation of these worker coops and actually the conversion of other kinds of business associations into coops what you’re going to have is an actual development boom in a city that so desperately needs it,” he said. He highlighted that there are food deserts in DC, areas that aren’t served by a nearby grocery store.
“Where you have food deserts you’ve got people, that means you can have a cooperative. But if you don’t have the incentives to do that then you’ll just wait for Safeway to come in, and they won’t ever come if they don’t find it profitable,” he said.
Join Dr. Wolff, Akcin and Gustafson at St. Stephen’s Church next Wednesday. They want to innovate America’s understanding of what good business practices are. They want Americans to understand and interact with socialist politics in the workplace. Cooperative business models allow people to control their means of production and these activists hope that experiencing that in the workplace will make Americans hungry to experience that sort of representation in government.