“Ideas are important, but unless you can bring that vision down to earth, it’s just pie-in-the-sky,” Gar Alperovitz said. This philosophy seems to guide much of his work. A distinguished historian, political economist, activist and writer, Alperovitz is well known for his critically acclaimed books on the atomic bomb and atomic diplomacy. He has also written extensively on the subject of building alternative economic systems and, among his many achievements, he was the architect of the first modern steel industry attempt at worker-ownership in Youngstown, Ohio.
His latest book, “Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth,” builds on his vision for a new economy — one that goes “beyond corporate capitalism and state socialism” to create a democratic political economy “from the ground up.” Released online for free by The Next System Project, where Alperovitz serves as cochair, “Principles” is a handbook for activists, organizers and practitioners, weaving together theory and practice and highlighting many examples of “institution-building projects” already underway in communities across the country. Alperovitz argues that these projects — which include public banks, worker cooperatives, municipal land trusts and urban farms — can serve as the building blocks for the new democratic society and economy that we so desperately need: the “next system.”
In this time of deepening political, economic and ecological crisis, Alperovitz’s vision and extensive research helps readers imagine what is possible and inspires them to roll up their sleeves and get to work making change in their local communities. Alperovitz spoke by phone, discussing his newest book and his perspective on the current political moment.
What is The Next System Project?
The Next System Project is an attempt to open a big debate. If you don’t like corporate capitalism and you don’t like state socialism, what really do you want, and how do we get there? On one hand, we have people debating design for systems beyond capitalism and socialism. On the other hand, we look at very specific institutions like public banks in cities or community-owned land or nonprofit structures that provide services — institutions that would, if you build them up piece by piece, begin to look like pieces of a next system.
In “Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth,” you argue that we are in the midst of a “systemic crisis.” Please explain.
A systemic crisis is one in which the basic trends — like inequality, incarceration, civil liberties, ecological sustainability and climate change — get worse decade by decade by decade no matter who is elected, so that the crisis is much deeper than simply politics. What are the fundamental institutions in the system driving the long trends? You can’t change the trends in a positive direction unless you change the institutional design. I think we are in the midst of a profound systemic crisis, and I think it’s time to debate alternatives and begin building many variations on the next system.
What is the “Pluralist Commonwealth”?
The vision of what I call the Pluralist Commonwealth is that any viable democratic and ecologically sustainable next system is going to have plural forms of common ownership. So, for example, starting at the bottom, the ordinary cooperative is a particular form of common or democratic ownership. A neighborhood land trust in which the neighborhood owns housing and land is a neighborhood form of common ownership. A city public utility is a larger form. A state bank, as in North Dakota, is somewhat larger. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which covers seven states and has both power and environmental aspects, is a larger publicly owned wealth or utility form. State ownership of nationalized industry, such as the French railroads, or the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), would be an example. Rather than the vision of state-owned companies in the socialist vision, I look for different forms of democratic ownership based on what is appropriate to the specific function. So, for example, in land-use it’s probably a neighborhood or a small cooperative store. [It’s important to] look at the functions that make sense at different scales, and in all cases honor the principle of democracy while building out a community vision from the ground up.
How does this vision relate to and intersect with the goals and efforts of social movements?
It intersects directly, but I think in some cases it’s the next step. It’s not either/or. For instance, in the environmental movement and the climate change movement, on the one hand there’s a resistance to various forms of institutions that pour CO2 into the environment, and on the other hand there’s installation of solar panels by a worker co-op, or a community-owned windmill, or state-owned windmills. It’s not only resisting and not only legislation and not only movement-building, but also simultaneously generating new institutions that are built to support the vision rather than, as in the Big Oil companies, opposing the vision. We’re trying to build institutions that support democracy and ecological sustainability as a matter of inherent design of the institution. Whereas Exxon, for example, as a matter of inherent design of the institution, must sell more oil and must create more problems for the climate. That’s what we mean by institutional or system change — changing the inherent property of institutions.
You write about the importance of establishing a new institutional basis for progressive politics. In the past, you point out, labor unions provided the backbone for progressive movements.
Most progressives who are alive today come out of a progressive vision that assumed corporate capitalism as the fundamental design of the system, but it was reformed by politics that would try to establish regulation of the environment or labor laws or Social Security and so forth without changing the nature of the system. It wasn’t just politics at the core of the reform programs, there were also institutions that gave it real muscle. Throughout the Western world and the United States, the most important of these institutions were labor unions. They supported liberalism and they supported social democracy even when there were fights within movements. When I was much younger I worked for Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. And he was a great environmentalist, but he was also strongly backed by labor unions and could not have been elected without labor-union backing. Most people who think about movement-building forget about the importance of institutions. Now labor unions have gone from 34 percent of the labor force down to 6 percent in the private sector. So one of the tasks of the future politics, and particularly system change, is to build new institutions that can also help build the politics at the same time they change the nature of the institutions. It’s both movement-building and institution-building.
Let’s talk about the 2016 U.S. election. A lot of people are still trying to understand the outcome.
I think the dangers of real repression or a very right-wing government were always there. One of the reasons is that there is just too much anger and too much loss of power. Labor unions are too weak to support progressive politics, and there’s too much upset and anger available to fuel right-wing politicians all over the world. I think that is why we’ve had this kind of election. In one sense, it’s the collapse of the old traditional liberal alternative — what’s called Social Democracy in Europe — and part of that is the loss of labor unions. That means that the power balance changes radically in the favor of big corporations and in favor of people with very right-wing politics. We need to change the institutional power balance as well as the politics. We also have to go beyond resistance. Resistance is very important, but unless we build an entirely new politics around a new vision, we’re always on the defensive. The only way to make progress is to also be on the offensive with a vision and politics and institutions that point in a positive new direction. The election of Donald Trump illuminates the task we have before us.
In the 2017 presidential primary, a lot of Americans supported a candidate who identified as a “democratic socialist.” That’s significant, right?
It was revealed that a lot of people didn’t worry about the word “socialism.” When I was younger, the word “socialism” was regarded as something outrageous, and it no longer is, which is a big gain. Let me say something about the importance of the “idea system,” because usually in politics we’re talking about changing real, material things, like housing and health care and welfare programs and payments and taxes. A good part of politics is also about ideas and vision and morality, and I think that’s what Bernie Sanders’ campaign showed us. The notion of giving actual words to a different direction is important because it helps people mobilize and get together and think of something very different. The polls showed that young people are favorable to the word “socialism,” but what Sanders did was demonstrate a much broader appeal. I’m from Wisconsin — the home of Joe McCarthy — and in that era, when you talked about socialism, you’d lose your job. So the notion that you can talk about socialism as an open idea, for all of its flaws, is significant. Of course, we need the democratic form of socialism if we’re going to use that term, because there have been very undemocratic forms as well.
Your book includes numerous examples of institution-building projects already underway in communities across the country. Are there a couple you’d like to highlight?
The idea that we should have publicly owned banks so that they can allocate funds to, for instance, worker co-ops or land ownership at the neighborhood-level is exciting, and several cities are beginning to do that. The state of North Dakota has had a publicly owned bank for a hundred years, which came out of populist socialist movements, and it is very successful. There are now active movements for public banks in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Santa Fe, Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland and several other cities.
Another project that has received a lot of attention and that we (the Democracy Collaborative) have been involved with is in Cleveland, Ohio. A group of worker-owned cooperatives that are quite large in scale, which include the greenest laundry in the Midwest, a greenhouse for growing crops in the winter that produces three million heads of lettuce a year, and a solar installation company are linked together in a neighborhood corporation that is neighborhood-wide. It’s not just free-standing co-ops because the idea is to build the neighborhood too, not just the workers and the work of co-ops. So the hospitals and universities in the area buy from this complex of worker and community-ownership [through a] neighborhood institution called the Evergreen Cooperative. It builds up a whole different vision of what a community could look like that is healthy and ecologically sustainable, and it’s a wonderful model that begins to show what we could begin to replicate in other cities. Rochester, New York, is in the process of building something similar, and there’s also similar work going on in Richmond, Virginia, in Atlanta, Georgia, and in Jackson, Mississippi.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I think people need to understand that politics sometimes is a long-haul game. If you are serious about politics, the price is decades of work, not just the next election. I think we’re in a period of potentially extraordinary historical change, but it means working now, looking at the long-haul building projects, not being disappointed when the trends don’t change all of the sudden, but realizing that step-by-step is laying groundwork, just as the women’s movement did, just as the civil rights movement did, just as the early environmental movement did. People who are working now are laying the groundwork for a big transformation, and I think it’s the hardest and most exciting and most important work. It’s easy to join a fast-moving movement once it gets going. The hard work is getting all the examples on the ground so they can become the basis of the movement, and I think that’s what’s exciting about this period.
To read Gar Alperovitz’s new online book, “Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth,” visit The Next System Project. To learn more about The Democracy Collaborative, visit their website.
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