Prof Wolff's new book is now available!

The Sickness is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us from Pandemics or Itself by Prof Wolff is a unique collection of over 50 essays, that argues "returning to normal" no longer responds adequately to the accumulated problems of US capitalism. What is necessary, instead, is transition toward a new economic system that works for all of us.

To our loyal audiences, we’d like to share with you, here, an excerpt of the introduction by Prof Wolff.

“One consequence of the neoliberalism that took over much of world capitalism after the 1970s was that privatization and deregulation became favored policies for dealing with capitalism’s continuous crashes. Authorities thus imposed “austerity measures” after the 2000 and 2008 subprime-mortgage crises. Public services – including measures to protect and advance public health – and regulations governing private healthcare industries were cut. Those cuts undermined preparations, private and public, for a possible viral pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, it thus triggered the capitalist crash that was already overdue since 2008-2009 (more than the usual four to seven years between crashes). Part I of this book thus argues that the cause of our current societal sickness was not chiefly the virus but rather an unsustainable and vulnerable economic system.

Part II explores capitalism’s accumulated vulnerabilities with particular emphasis on how they undermined the capacity to contain COVID-19’s spread across the US. The politics and ideology promoted and celebrated by US capitalism had been among its chief supports. In 2020 they became instead agents of glaring failures and decline.

Part III examines how the intertwined pandemic and capitalist crash reawakened millions to social problems capitalism had long been unable to solve. The system had repeatedly “kicked those problems down the road.” That is, it deferred seriously addressing what activists demanded in the way of ending racism, unemployment, sexism, poverty, inequality, political corruption, and so on. Pandemic capitalism forcefully returned those problems to the forefront of public awareness. It also intensified them and brought them together as a broad-based, multi-layered challenge to capitalism as a system.

Whenever capitalism has been challenged as a system – and especially when the challenge is as wide and deep as it has been since March 2020 – voices of reform arise. Proposals are made to soften capitalism’s harder edges, to reintroduce government regulations dismantled under neoliberalism, to give capitalism a social consciousness, to give the unemployed bigger compensation checks for a while, and so on. Reform proposals also serve as distracting covers for what the main government programs actually do: throw unprecedented amounts of money (via government deficits and central-bank money creation) at capitalists to help them through the crises. Part IV offers critical looks at reforms of capitalism in the past and what that history suggests about the pertinence of similar reforms here and now.

Reforms of capitalism have been achieved mostly in, and because of, its crises. If capitalism’s crises were short or shallow enough, capitalists evaded reforms. When reforms were won, they usually proved temporary, as capitalists and their supporters later rolled them back. The so-called COVID-19 crisis of capitalism has provoked proliferating reform proposals. But this time, given the history of past reforms and this latest crisis’s extreme severity, reforms may no longer suffice. There are signs that this time reform demands may get swept up into social movements for transition beyond capitalism itself. Such revolutionary movements will define their goals as making sure that the set of changes now arising will not only be achieved but will also endure. Part V considers today’s case for, and possibilities of, changing the system as a whole. 

All economic systems are born, evolve, and die. As they decline, eventually alternative systems replace them. The catastrophic coincidence of viral pandemic and economic crash places extreme pressure on our institutions and ways of thinking. Over the last three centuries, those have mostly defined and supported the reproduction of capitalism. Yet there were always critical strains of thought and social movements that understood that we can and should do better than capitalism. I hope this book builds on those strains and movements to capture the feeling and thinking of those today who grasp this critical moment in capitalism’s history. Like them, it seeks basic economic change as a key part of the way forward.”

The Sickness is the System is published by Democracy at Work ([email protected]). Professor Wolff generously donated his time on this book (as he does with all of his work for us) so that all sales revenue could support [email protected] Our nonprofit organization’s work analyzes capitalism critically as a systemic problem and champions democratizing workplaces as part of a systemic solution.

We hope this book is a useful tool for understanding, amidst the crises we face today, a better future can be envisioned. The book is available for purchase on You can learn more on our books page


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  • Liz Phillips
    published this page in Updates 2020-09-18 13:03:17 -0400
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