Vaccine Mandates, Labor, and the Left: A Conversation With Richard Wolff
I have a somewhat contentious, but ultimately respectful, exchange with the Marxist economist
Richard Wolff, the Marxian economist, has been in the news lately for comments he’s made that appear to flirt with anti-vaccine sentiments.
That’s made Wolff somewhat of a polarizing figure in some corners of the left, with those opposed to vaccine mandates and indeed vaccines altogether celebrating his remarks while those who are in favor of stricter public health measures expressing disappointment.
I’m of the latter group, but Wolff—unlike conspiracy theorists like Jimmy Dore, Max Blumenthal, and other lesser known charlatans—is a credible voice and someone whose thinking I suspected it would be good to dig into.
I reached Wolff by telephone in mid-November.
What follows is a condensed, lightly edited transcript of our 45-minute conversation.
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Eoin Higgins: Over the last month or so, you've made a few comments that have kind of tied the anti-vaccine movement to the wave of labor resistance that we're seeing in the US. You tweeted, “It's not pro versus anti-vaccine. The issue is class struggle: Have employee employers dictates and mandates become intolerable for employees? Record job quitting, strikes, and refusals of masks/vaccine mandates say yes.”
So let's start with that one. Do you think there's really something that ties the record job quitting and strikes to the relatively recent vaccine mandates?
Richard Wolff: There are two things that are driving my comments about this.
The first is straightforward: I see a huge historical moment. I don't know how long it will last. I don't know how deep it will run. I don't see the future any better than anybody else does. But I see a level of movement that I find remarkable, that I find a bit surprising only because it wasn't there before. The evidence for it includes the wave of strikes, it includes the record quitting numbers of people coming back to their jobs after more or less of a hiatus because of the unemployment, because of the pandemic. Looking at a job with new and fresh eyes and saying, “This is intolerable, I'm not staying here,” in the words of that old song, you can take this job and shove it. For me, it is not a coincidence of these three things happening together. It is suggestive of a social movement of unknown depth and of unknown duration.
In that framework, yes, that's how I then interpret the hostility to mask mandates and the hostility to the vaccine mandates. For me, this is the same rebellion, if you like, the same refusal to be told what to do and how to do it, whether it's on the job or off the job. This is a movement of resentment, a movement of resistance.
All historical movements of resistance, once you look at them carefully, they don't all have the romantic uni-dimensional form that is often attributed to them. People resist in lots of different ways. Whatever the last straw is that drives you over the edge is largely a function of the particularities of time and place. So for one, for one person, this is a demand of the employer that you've been vaccinated. For the other one, it is a demand of the employer that you don't be two minutes late or that you do whatever it is they say, even if it's patently absurd to do that, etc., etc. So, yeah, I see it all in that framework.
My second point is that I see the right-wing in the United States, the political right-wing, very smartly making use of this resistance to take it to the right. In other words, to inflict it that way, to politicize this resistance movement so that it blends in nicely with their right-wing agendas. I feel myself to be in a struggle over which way people will interpret their situation, whatever the resistance that they are going to be expressing, which is what I see.
EH: It feels like you're leaving out a very important group of people here, though—the majority of workers who want people to be vaccinated, who want people to wear masks, who want these public health measures to be instituted both in the public and private sector.
The people who you're referring to, who are anti-mask and anti-vaccine, are very loud and vocal. But they are, statistically, a minority of American workers. So why is it so important to cater to this minority of people, most of whom have these beliefs because of their existing right-wing ideology. Why should people on the left cater to these perspectives when the majority of workers are in favor of public health mandates and in favor of these mandates that are being instituted for protection of public health?
It's just strange to me to watch you go on right-wing shows like Jimmy Dore and appeal to these people when you know the majority of people are on the other side. Isn't this a situation where people who are interested and devoted to an alternative to a capitalist order and to fighting against right-wing corporate control, should be reaching out to the majority of people, especially when they have a perspective on this that is in the interests of everyone's health?
RW: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't put it that way. I guess I see it a little bit differently. For me, that majority that you were talking about, that mostly shares more or less the resistance, the hostility, everything I just spoke about, I won't repeat it—they feel that way, too. They don't see the connection between those feelings that they have and the right-wing invitation to become an anti-vaccine person or an anti-mask person or to do any of that. They don't see that connection, and I'm happy about that. But I am very mindful that if the only way to articulate your resistance to what is being handed down to you is the right-wing one, then the latent critique in the minds of the majority of the working class will find no other expression than the one offered by the right-wing because nothing comparable is being offered by the left.
Let me give you an example. There is very good reason for people to be deeply suspicious of the Pfizer Corporation and all of the others that are involved in this vaccine hustle, the arrangement whereby the government basically pays for these shots and pays the costs of most of this disease, given how badly it handled the COVID crisis in the first place. I don't want to undo that by becoming a cheerleader, that we're supposed to celebrate the Pfizer Corporation. It didn't take the steps it could have and should have in time once the disease was known and waited until it got a financial guarantee of the profitability of responding for it to then undertake to do it. All of those kinds of issues, if they were raised properly, could mobilize the resistance people feel, as evidenced in the ways they described to you and take it in a left wing social critical position.
But if the left doesn't do that, if the left is afraid to mobilize, then you’re leaving the field of this resistance, which, you're right, is a minority position now, but one that is growing quickly, that has deep roots. That is not new in the sense that it has been building for quite some time. I articulated it saying, for example, as being a good part of why Mr. Trump became president, that he was able to tap and mobilize levels of resistance, anger and bitterness over what has happened to the working class in this country over the last 30 or 40 years in a way that the Democratic Party, other than Bernie, wasn't able to do.
I think you're making the same mistake now because you are allowing the right-wing to be the only game in town if you want to give the finger to the system. Vague as that notion is, the right-wing is telling you how to do it, and the left wing has nothing to say.
EH: What exactly do you mean when you say vaccine hustle? Are you saying that the vaccine doesn't work?
RW: No. As far as I can tell, the vaccine works perfectly well.
Most of the workers that I deal with, for most of the audiences they deal with are vaccinated. I'm vaccinated. I want to be vaccinated. I do that as a matter of personal protection.
The problem isn't the vaccine. The problem is a system that is oppressive to people, and they are now actually coming to terms that it doesn't work. I would wish people became aware of oppression or became aware of a system that they don't like, don't want, and how that evolves and how that develops, it’s my job as a political activist to try to influence and shape that. And I would like it to go in a direction that is critical of the capitalist system because of who I am.
EH: Absolutely. But the resistance to vaccines and vaccine mandates is not based in or coming from a feeling of, ‘this pharmaceutical company is hustling us and was waiting until they have profit.’ It's coming from a conspiracy theory mindset where these life saving medications—and by the way, I agree with you about the for profit system and Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, all of them, and the way that they sat on the vaccine and waited until they had money and that they're not sharing it with the rest of society.
I agree with you about all of that, but that is not the criticism that is being made of vaccines from the right and not from, especially, the people who share your perspective on this and who have been amplifying this stuff. People like Jimmy Dore, who promotes ivermectin and all manner of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories to an increasingly right leaning audience.
So I guess I'm wondering, why is it that you are working to appeal to this right-wing perspective rather than addressing this from a left wing perspective?
When you were on Dore’s show late last month, you said that, “It's not that they don't believe in vaccines, they've been vaccinated themselves and their children for a long time. It's a normal procedure of life, but they don't want to be told again what they must buy pharmaceutical companies and government bureaucrats for whom they have lost what little respect they had.”
Do you think that that's really what's going on? Or do you think that it's maybe based in what's a more general right-wing culture war attack on basically anything that is perceived as being on the left? Because to me, as somebody who studies and writes about these anti-vax conspiracy theories, this is what I see: People on the right are not saying that this is about the pharmaceutical companies, that they're saying that the vaccines don't work, that COVID is like the flu. It's the same thing that we've been hearing for a year and a half, right?
RW: I have a clearer sense, maybe, of where you and I may disagree.
I understand the right-wing effort. I understand exactly what you're saying. We see that as the same. I particularly would pick up on your last point that the right-wing is very careful not to attack the pharmaceutical companies, as they are always careful not to offend the hand that feeds them in many ways. And so they have to come out against the vaccine itself or the science that's involved.
But for me, that's a problem. Why? Because I do see that what they're trying to do is to take advantage of this as a recruiting tool for the right. I do a lot of public interactions with people, even under a pandemic, I use Zoom in on Skype and all the rest. I do have a clear sense based on my experience that an enormous part of what's going on in the United States today as far as vaccinations, masks, and so forth, is an opposition to a mandate—not in opposition to a vaccine.
I see it everywhere, particularly in the labor movement, union meetings and so on. These are people who are perfectly determined to be vaccinated. They have their children vaccinated. They have no principled objection to the vaccine and find it strange that people would be against the vaccine.
But they vibrate solidarity with people who are saying, ‘This system is corrupt, this system is not reliable. We don't trust these people who are telling us what to do on the job or off the job in the clinic. It really doesn't matter. We're sick of it. We're tired of it.’”
I see, therefore, a field of political contestation. Which way will this resistance go? Will it become the basis of what the right-wing wants? I agree with your description. The right-wing wants this to be anti-vaccine. It wants it to be useful to their strategy for building a a bridge for people that used to be part of a fairly broad Democratic Party consensus, left of center, whatever you want to call it. They want to move more of those people over into their framework.
The left should be articulating an alternative way to deal with this. There ought to be a demand that we do not have a medical care system that puts profit first, to use the example of this pandemic, and the example of the fact that we don't have a National Health Service, which we know to be a very popular issue in the minds of working class people in this country. We ought to respond to this abusive mandate arrangement by not being hooked into a system that puts private profits first. It should be handled differently.
We would have had a vaccine sooner. We would have had it available to everybody under better circumstances, et cetera, et cetera. We wouldn't have had the delay that we had in dealing with COVID in the first place. In other words, develop a political mode of expression of the anger and the resistance. People feel focused on an attack on the business culture that runs this society as the ultimate problem, rather than the right-wing story that it's somehow the evil government that does everything, thereby nicely avoiding putting the business CEOs of the country in the position of the blame worthy object.
That's a political struggle I see that we need to wage, and I just wish the left were more willing and able to do it. I know why the Democratic Party doesn't do it, because they depend on the very people I'm talking about for their financial support as well. They are congenitally afraid of mobilizing large numbers of people, which would have been the way to move forward in this situation anyway. Had they done that, they would have captured this sense of resistance in a wave of street demonstrations that could have really changed the direction of this country and would have been the logical next step to Occupy, back in 2011.
EH: We are in total agreement as far as the response to COVID being insufficient, that it is a function of both parties captured by the corporate capitalist system. One hundred percent. We are in lockstep on that. Definitely.
The fundamental, central question that I have is that the resistance to vaccine mandates is not something that should be excused or catered to, because these public health measures, if they are rejected, will negatively impact the rights and the health of all workers and the public. And at a certain point, it really comes down to that there has to be a case made for the health and the rights of the majority of workers—and for all workers—even if that angers a minority who are opposed to mandates.
Why should the left position be to in any way give any kind of credence to these conspiracy theories and and to in any way to accommodate this fringe minority whose actions are going to result in illness, possibly death for many, many workers? Shouldn't the position on the left be that the vaccine mandate should be supported, and that it should be part of a comprehensive approach to helping people deal with the fallout from COVID and to get past it for the good and the health of all workers in the country and in the world?
RW: I have no objection to a mandate as an idea or as a policy tool. My understanding is that the science says if you're vaccinated, you can still get the disease, but it will be much less severe. You won't have to go to the hospital. Your risk of dying is drastically reduced, et cetera, which on the basis of which I believe it is wise for me and I've not only been vaccinated, I've had that booster thing as well. I would urge everybody I know to get a vaccine because it strikes me as literally contrary to science in the broadest sense of the term, not to take advantage of what has been learned about the relationship between the vaccine on the one hand and the risk of disease on the other.
I wouldn't mind a procedure in which there is some properly democratic way which gets at the resistance feeling the people have. We have a process in which the arguments are made and then the vote is held so that the majority, as you put it at the beginning of this conversation that once vaccines and that once everybody given whatever science they believe to be vaccinated because it's in the interest of the majority to do so, then I would have no problem with the mandate that emerged from that.
I live in New York City. Our previous mayor, the one leaving now, he just told everybody what it is they were going to have to do to keep their job. This offended large numbers of workers that I know personally who are in favor of vaccination, but who are angry and bitter at a mayor they put into office and do not want to be told what to do without even the minimal consultation with the labor unions and the others that got him his job.
If you could develop, or if we could articulate, a process of democratic decision making, if the mandate came out of that process, I'm OK with it. If the mandate doesn't, if it becomes a prerogative of the employer or a prerogative of the top of the bureaucratic pyramid, then it is in direct conflict with that feeling of resistance. And I don't want to be on the side of the mandate so I'm on the side of the resistance.
EH: If there are people who don't have an objection to the vaccine but have an objection to the mandate, those people will get the vaccine anyway. Because they have no objection to the vaccine, right?
I can understand them having an ideological disagreement about the mandate, but they're not really the people that I'm talking about here because they're not going to resist getting the vaccine. Once you do that, you become somebody who is anti-vaccine. The minute you decide not to get the vaccine, you're putting your ideological problem with a specific mandate against the general public health of the entire city.
RW: Well, again, yeah, assuming that the science supports what you just said. In other words, that choosing not to have the vaccine yourself puts other people at risk, then yeah, then I have no problem with it either because of its social implications. It's not a decision about where you have your next beer, which I can safely say doesn't matter to larger society. This is something which you decide for yourself.
But it does have a big impact on the rest of society. Once that's the case, then a social decision making apparatus is appropriate. I would favor a democratic decision to mandate something for everybody rather than one that's dictated, for example, by the structure of a capitalist corporation that allows a CEO to tell the workers, ‘I have the power to take away your livelihood and your job. If you don't do what I tell you, that's what I'm about to do.’ But I want a democratic process.
EH: Are we talking about a statewide or a nationwide vote where groups on the right who would prefer thousands of people die rather than a perceived win for their political opponents, where corporations that benefit from the continuation of the pandemic can weigh in?
I would imagine that Pfizer enjoys the fact that there are these anti-vax people because the longer that they're around, the more the virus mutates, the more the virus mutates, the more people need boosters, the more people need boosters, the more money they make.
Is this really something that in a public health emergency like this is really something where we want to have a nationwide referendum? Or do we want to deal with it as quickly as possible for the good of public health?
Also, do you think that the science shows that not being vaccinated is not good for public health?
RW: There's apparently a dispute. For me, it's crystal clear that vaccines are good for public health because they have been shown to make the impact of the virus much less severe for you than it would otherwise have been. For me, that's already enough and I could see on that basis, which I believe is the scientific consensus at this point, all kinds of social decisions are followed, and so I would be comfortable with a social decision making apparatus to reach a conclusion about that.
One of the ways to do that would be a referendum. Absolutely.
Another way to do that would be to say that there are institutions in our society that do not function democratically and that therefore they must now do so because this is a people's issue. This is an issue of public health and public safety, and that cannot be left to a tiny minority of people, particularly not when they're motivated by private profit.
That's exactly what I mean by using this public health crisis to move the conversation in society to question the existing institutional framework. That's not what the right-wing is doing. They are doing it to promote a very particular right-wing agenda that has no interest in challenging corporate dominance in our society or the bureaucratic hierarchies that support it.
That's my point. I want to go in that direction. Let's make the case that the vaccine is a public health issue with this science that supports it. And by that, by the way, I mean, not to dispute what you raised, which is whether you are more or less likely to infect others given whether or not you are vaccinated, which is at least a fuzzy issue. We don't have to rely on that.
We have a different issue. The more people get seriously ill, the more they will lean on the medical system. The more they lean on the medical system, the more costly our medical care system will be. And that's a public issue because we all support that with our taxes and so forth. So you can establish the social significance of the individual decision, whether or not to be vaccinated. Therefore it becomes legitimate to say we all have an interest in whether some of us are vaccinated or not. There's no escape from that tension between the social and the individual.
So let's use that democratic decision making process, which is the best way to work out that tension between the social and the individual.
EH: Do you think that we need to have a public election on whether or not to institute polio vaccines or measles or mumps? It seems apparent that there are public health issues that we have decided are just kind of settled without having to have a vote on it. I'm not clear why this one is different.
RW: You have a moment of criticism and resistance to many of the basic institutions of this particular capitalist society here in the United States. You don't even have something comparable to this in many other capitalist countries right now. It is a peculiar moment in the history of this society and that therefore an issue that did not become hot politically before becomes hot politically now.
You have to take into account the larger situation that puts on the agenda something that wasn't on the agenda before we dealt with polio, that we had a whole different attitude in this culture, particularly to authority. So you were living in this culture to give authority to Jonas Salk or to the medical establishment.
The effect of that is to put this issue this time in a different political context. If we ignore that because we want to believe that some sort of scientific consensus should operate here the way it did before then, we are not being sensitive to the political moment we're in. And that is very dangerous for the left. It means that we're ceding to the right cashing in on all of this resistance.
They may be talking about making the only way people can express their vision is the one that they hear about, the one that is not contested by an alternative way of thumbing their nose at the powers that be. If the only way to do that is the one that the right-wing offers, we can't really be surprised if all kinds of people who don't like other parts of the right-wing like that part because no one else gives them a chance to do it.
I believe that's the art of politics, at least as best they can understand it. You don't hate the people whose attitudes you are trying to shift in this way. But you can push it in this or that direction. And that's what we're trying to do is to lead people to pay more attention to Dr. Fauci than they do to Donald Trump or something like that. That requires meeting people halfway to where they are and not acting as though they ought to be in a different place from the one they in fact in the other. And at this moment when we are trying to move the dial leftward rather than rightward.
EH: I think, on this topic, we have a difference in opinion on how to get there.
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