Rick Wolff and I were colleagues for many years at UMass, and I learned a great deal from him. He is a bright and learned man, and also a very charming fellow. I have not kept up with what he has been writing, so I do not want to try at all to comment on his views, but I would like to suggest why Rick, or anyone else steeped in Marx's economic theories [like me, for example] might want to try to separate judgments about the personal moral character of capitalists from an analysis of capitalism as an economic system.
Marx's central thesis, with which I wholly agree [and with which I imagine Rick also agrees, whether he thinks it is Marx's central thesis or not] is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class, an exploitation that is built into the structure of capitalism and is quite independent of the knowledge, intentions, or motivations of the individuals who function in that system as the owners or managers of capital.
Marx spends a good deal of time in Volume I of Capital explaining where profit comes from. It is, he says, the money form of the surplus labor extracted from the workers in the production process. [See my lengthy tutorial on the Thought of Karl Marx, or my various books and articles, for my analysis and partial reconstruction of this claim.] He goes to great lengths to rebut any suggestion that the capitalists make a profit only by greedily extracting more labor time from the workers than they have contracted for. In the great Tenth Chapter, On the Working Day, he cites numerous examples of capitalists who go so far as to fiddle with the clocks in their factories in an attempt to wring a few extra minutes of labor time from the workers, but he insists -- quite correctly in my view -- that even if the capitalists were pillars of Puritan rectitude and kept their bargains with the workers to the last jot and tittle, they would still exploit the workers. Even those storied capitalists, much beloved by modern apologists, who befriend their workers and give them Christmas turkeys and ask after their workers' children, exploit their workers. That is to say, they extract more value from the labor of their workers than is embodied in what they pay their workers. This is a structural fact about capitalism. No moral education or religious uplift for the capitalists can eliminate exploitation from capitalism, because capitalism rests necessarily on that exploitation. No exploitation, no profit.
Now, the case of racism is quite different. Capitalism is not inherently racist, nor is it inherently sexist, nor is it inherently homophobic. Indeed, capitalism is a liberalizing forced in the modern world. The reason is quite simple, Marx thinks [and, with a great many historical complications and caveats and qualifications, he is right, in my judgment.] Capital seeks labor at the lowest price it can get it for, and any non-economic, hence irrational, prejudices -- against African-Americans or against women or against gay men and women or against non-Christians -- will have the effect of distorting the labor market and driving labor prices up. Capitalism does not depend structurally on prejudice; quite the contrary.
So my wry observation, a few days ago, that an enormous number of Americans are just hateful bloody-minded bigots, is not at all meant to suggest that the personal beliefs and attitudes of capitalists are somehow the cause of the exploitation of workers. This last election cycle has been quite useful in revealing the stupid and despicable beliefs of many capitalists and their defenders. Mitt Romney did us all an enormous favor by blurting out, over and over again, his true beliefs -- beliefs that any prudent candidate would have kept under wraps. Romney behaved like someone whose deepest ambition was to appear on the public stage as an Edward Arnoldesque bloated capitalist. There were times when I thought he might appear in the old Thomas Nast cartoon garb as The Capitalist with top hat and a dollar sign on his vest.
But even if all the capitalists in America were to become enlightened philanthropists, it would not change the fact that capitalism itself rests on exploitation. By contrast, it is perfectly possible [albeit not at all likely] that Americans should shed their racist, sexist, and homophobic prejudices and work industriously to eliminate the last vestiges of institutional or structural bigotry from this great land. At which point -- Oh Lord, let it happen before I die! -- it will still be the fact that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.