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Envisioning Where We Want to Go: An Interview With Evolutionary Reconstructionist Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz. (Photo: Mark Dixon)

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Longtime activist, historian and political-economic theorist Gar Alperovitz, whose America Beyond Capitalism was serialized on Truthout, conducted an email interview with us on the occasion of the creation of his new website.

Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: Gar, you’ve just created a new website that seems both to sum up the principles of your work on democratic ownership and on building a sustainable and equitable political-economic system and to track your personal trajectory as an activist and thinker over the last 50 years: What are your goals in establishing the website?

Gar Alperovitz: As you know, the Democracy Collaborative does a great deal of direct hands-on work helping establish worker-cooperatives and other efforts aimed at democratizing the ownership of wealth at different levels. The impetus for the website came from one of our lead researchers, Thomas Hanna, who suggested it might be useful to pull together some of the work I had been doing over the past several decades on the theory that informs much of our strategy.

From the late 1960s on, it seemed to me that a serious movement would ultimately have to go beyond simply urging “elements” of the next system (as for instance, simply promoting worker-owned firms, necessary as this is). It will have to begin to develop a clear and explicit larger vision and some quite specific ideas about why the “institutional design and architecture” of that vision would produce results better than the two traditional models – corporate capitalism, on the one hand, and state-socialism, on the other.

I use this term to suggest that a serious next system must be built on the principle of plural forms of common wealth ownership – hence “pluralist commonwealth.”

The primary goal of the website is to offer some explicit hand-holds (as I see them) for activists and theorists on how we might get serious about what a “next system” might really look like, and why, precisely, it would be better than the traditional models – and better, too, than some of the models that are commonly discussed in rhetorical terms without adequate attention to some of their well-known failings.

Put another way, the goal is to contribute to the discussion that is fast becoming critical: “If you don’t like capitalism and you don’t like traditional socialism, what do you want, and why – specifically, not rhetorically, would it be better?”

We’ve covered this before, but I’d be so grateful if you’d explain what you mean by and how you developed the term, “Pluralist Commonwealth.”

Briefly, I use this term to suggest that a serious next system must be built on the principle of plural forms of common wealth ownership – hence “pluralist commonwealth.” Basically, I’ve been trying to help move the dialogue beyond the oversimplified left debate that poses the only alternatives as either state socialism or worker-owned or worker-self-managed socialism. I think the next system will be much more interesting and complex in its structure – and should be! Especially, if we want to build a genuine democratic community-nurturing system from the ground up.

Among the forms: worker ownership, neighborhood ownership (particularly for some forms of land); community (or municipal ownership) for other functions; state ownership (as, for instance, in the State Bank of North Dakota); regional ownership (particularly when large ecological challenges are involved – as in the original plan for the Tennessee Valley Authority before it was undermined and corrupted); and, of course, national ownership for larger entities still. Participatory worker self-management in all elements, etc.

The website brings together work suggesting that if you really dig into the questions involved, it becomes clear that any viable next system is all but certain to have to develop forms of ownership appropriate to different scales and functions (and also environmental) issues and also to different democratic challenges – and that it is time to recognize this. “Pluralist Commonwealth” simply underscores this point, and also attempts to suggest various approaches can be integrated in a larger community nurturing and sustaining systemic architecture.

In the very moving video of a 2012 address you gave that’s on the site’s homepage, you describe the price that must be paid to work for systemic change as “decades of your life.” You have clearly paid this price and then some, but a cynical observer might say the systemic change – at least for the last 40 years – has all been in the wrong direction. How would you counter that?

Specifically, you were involved early on and very actively in the civil rights movement in the ’60s and the apparent legislative and social victories against institutional racism, yet here we are with the new Jim Crow and an arguably stronger – because ostensibly color-blind – structural racism that includes a rollback of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. What has this trajectory taught you about social change?

The first and most fundamental answer is that any attempt to challenge the structure of the most powerful corporate capitalist system in the history of the world would be foolish to assume this can be done in a short period of time. Hence, obviously, decades of one’s life are required if you are serious.

I am not, however, a utopian. I come at the question as an historian and a political-economist. I believe there are quite specific reasons why the current system is facing huge problems that it cannot solve – and that therefore we are likely to face ever-growing difficulties for some time. It is no surprise to me that we are seeing rollbacks of the Voting Rights Act, and I expect many other rollbacks, along with economic pain, and social disruption, etc.

I do not, however, think that this phase of development is the only or final phase of development. Indeed, precisely because there is growing pain, social disruption, the rolling back of previous gains, etc., there are also reasons to believe quite new directions in social movement building, in the construction of pre-figurative economic and other institutions and in serious strategic and systemic thinking are all but certain to continue to grow, deepen and become more and more sophisticated as time goes on. Indeed, although the decaying national press does not report on it, anyone who follows what is going on at the grass-roots level – from climate change activism to worker-owned co-op construction to the takeover of a municipal utility in Bolder, and the use of eminent domain in Richmond, California, etc., etc. knows that something is quietly building in response to the systemic failures (and, too, in response to the decay of the traditional progressive solution – liberalprogrammatic politics, a politics that is no longer empowered, as it once was, by a strong labor movement . . . )

I think the emerging era – despite the pain, and indeed in large part because of it – may be the most important and interesting era in American history: The existing system is running out of options. Hence getting very, very serious (and thoughtful) both about what we really want and how to move forward laying groundwork, in practice and in theory, is of extreme importance.

Under the “Climate Change Growth and the Environment” rubric of the Pluralist Commonwealth principles, you note: “the critical importance of rebuilding cultures of community accountability and ecological sustainability from the bottom up as ultimately the only way to nurture a larger politics and culture that constrains larger-scale and higher-level enterprise and statist functions in all systems – even those not driven by profit-maximizing pressures” as a strategy to counter the socially and environmentally toxic pressures of an economic growth goal. Concretely, how do you see an alternative to growth being implemented – and, realistically, given the probability of abrupt anthropogenic climate disruption, do we as a society have time to build a new system from the ground up?

It is far better to act in ways that can help produce what can be produced than to assume in advance that it is all impossible.

No we do not have enough time to do what we know is necessary. But yes, we have enough time to do a very, very great deal to lay foundations for what will be imperfectly necessary, but absolutely critical. I worry about the way in which some people understand terms like “abrupt anthropogenic climate disruption.” It sometimes is taken to mean “the end of the world” – rather than “very, very severe ecological disruptions that can be threatening to many things we hold dear.” The two understandings have radically different implications: Assuming that if we do not change things quickly it will be something like “the end of the world” is disempowering. It’s “all or nothing,” and since things cannot change quickly, what is the point?

I think we are in for very, very severe problems, but I do not think that means we can do nothing to partly moderate and ultimately overcome the problems, or at least establish a new equilibrium. My view is as follows:

[1] It is “possible” nothing significant can be done; [2] It is also possible that we can lay groundwork for long run change to a new direction – moving to and through the great disruptions – and ultimately establish the basis of a new reality; [3] It is impossible to know in advance how far we can go towards a serious solution; [4] It is far better to act in ways that can help produce what can be produced than to assume in advance that it is all impossible. That direction insures that the problem will never be dealt with in any form or in any way.

What is interesting and important in all this is that at the grass-roots level there is enormous energy building around localist elements of a larger long-term solution – solar, new forms of agriculture, altering transportation, capturing methane from garbage and turning it into energy production, challenging universities to alter their investment patterns, creating worker-owned co-ops, etc. etc. The trajectory here is one of ever increasing sophistication and activism, building new institutions and practices from the bottom up – a necessary, but clearly not sufficient, stage in laying groundwork for larger systemic approaches and longer-term political change.

None of this means, of course, that I wouldn’t welcome limitations to carbon emissions under the current system if an unexpected political opportunity made such limitations possible, just as I would welcome non-system-transforming reforms that ameliorate the conditions of the poor. In both cases (and in many other areas), however, I think it is clear that over the long haul we need to change the logic of the system itself if we want a serious solution.

One of the critical elements of the pluralist commonwealth that most appeals to me is the idea that everyone – especially those presently marginalized because of our social and economic organization (for example, LGBT persons or unpaid caregivers) – should enjoy a role in the community’s economic and political decision-making. How do you see such a program being implemented?

Central to the pluralist commonwealth vision is the notion that unless we put the reconstruction of community at the forefront of strategy – locally, politically and theoretically – we will never build a politics and culture of genuine inclusion. The theory and ideal can be found in most religions, in Martin Buber’s anarcho-communalism, in Raymond Williams culture theory, but also in Karl Marx’s appreciation of the Paris Commune, on the one hand, and the Russian peasant mir communal form on the other (to say nothing of related themes taken up in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). This emphasis also helps open a direction beyond liberal strategies, on the one hand, and beyond narrow forms of state socialist and worker-owned or controlled socialism on the other. In practical terms it means taking seriously the step-by-step reconstruction of community-building institutions and many forms of cooperative structures. And it means economic planning to stabilize the underpinning local communities.

The US economy currently produces . . . the equivalent of roughly $100,000 for every family of four – and roughly a twenty hour work week. Technically speaking, we have no economic problem; we have a political problem in managing the most powerful economy in the world.

Do not misunderstand: The fight for individual “rights” is critical – along with institutions like a guaranteed job and/or guaranteed income that give economic support to the individual. But without changing the nature of how we understand the relationship of each individual to the community, what we end up with is individualist demands to be allowed in – rather than a rebuilding of a thorough-going common understanding that there can be no real embrace of individual difference in the absence of a genuinely inclusive community

Take one of the examples you mentioned: unpaid caregivers, whose work is absolutely vital to society, but whose contributions are more or less invisible in the current system. This is a clear case where we need to think in terms of a plural set of institutions rather than a particular “silver bullet” that might solve all our problems in one stroke. A system based on worker cooperatives, for instance, might be appealing, but some caregivers would likely not be able to participate in such efforts and would be excluded from the place where collective democratic power over the economy is exercised. A guaranteed basic income would do much to help individuals in general and for people whose work centers around unremunerated care in particular. On the other hand, a guaranteed income alone would still leave many individuals isolated from the process of building democratic, community-sustaining institutions like co-ops. We need to think holistically about such questions, about who gets to participate in different efforts, and how both individuals and community institutions are sustained.

“The Pluralist Commonwealth model holds that not only is a redistribution of work-time possible, but that it is also a necessary condition of democratic participation and of personal liberty – liberty, that is, “to use one’s time as one sees fit.” Please talk about how you see a guaranteed living income and/or job and a reduction of hours worked becoming a reality in the land where workers work the most hours a year of anywhere in the world?

The US economy currently produces roughly $200,000 for every family of four – even with high unemployment, even in stagnation. Viewed differently, this is the equivalent of roughly $100,000 for every family of four – and roughly a twenty hour work week. Technically speaking we have no economic problem; we have a political problem in managing the most powerful economy in the world. A restructured system could move rapidly toward a reduced work week, along with redistributive measures to alter the current radically unequal distributions of income and wealth. Alternatively, individuals might work longer hours, but take the equivalent amount of free time in several-month breaks, during which they could study, learn new skills, take up creative arts, or just vacation. These are not technical problems; they are political problems a serious next system could undertake to resolve if the structures of power that now block solutions were altered.

I’m sending you these questions on Hiroshima Day: how does your activism and scholarship on nuclear issues intersect with the Pluralist Commonwealth?

The use of the atomic bomb was intimately related to a belief that what was being done would both end the war and further such a vision against the challenges raised by the Soviet Union and others who disagreed with . . . democratic capitalist system US policy promulgated.

My work on the bombing of Hiroshima was (and is) one of the things that forced me up against the system problem. We now know that use of the bomb was unnecessary and known at the time to be unnecessary. Most of the highest-level US generals and admirals (including President Eisenhower, and even hawks like Air Force General Curtis Lemay) went public after World War II criticizing the bombing as totally unnecessary. To ask how a nation and its leaders could in such circumstances knowingly come to a decision to destroy roughly 300,000 people, almost all of whom were the elderly or children who stayed at home while the young men were at war, is to ask some of the most disturbing questions about the nature of the current system.

The bombing of Hiroshima cannot be understood without clear recognition that it was in many ways the culmination of a development over almost two centuries of a system based on expansion – first, the taking over of an entire continent; second, the extension overseas of economic and other strategies aimed at the control of markets and raw material. Along with this came the development of an ideology, a genuine belief that what was being done was also helping support democracy and freedom around the world. Yes, based on corporate interests, but also – and this is what made it truly powerful – based for many on a genuine belief that this was helping save the “free world.”

Space does not permit a full discussion, but ultimately the use of the atomic bomb was intimately related to a belief that what was being done would both end the war and further such a vision against the challenges raised by the Soviet Union and others who disagreed with the premises of the global “free world” democratic capitalist system US policy promulgated. (For more on this see my book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and the Introduction to my “Cold War Essays”.)

You’re on the advisory board of the intentionally optimistic Yes! Magazine and have worked apparently tirelessly for justice for over 50 years: How do you maintain your energy and hopefulness – I would even say, optimism?

Part of what keeps me going is respect for what others have done in difficult times; part derives from history. Some people believe that they contribute only if they can see the positive result of their action, now! My heroes are the unknown civil rights workers in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s who worked for change against great odds and in great danger (many were hung, often after being tortured). Their work laid the groundwork for what came later, in the 1950s and 1960s – and was just as necessary and just as valuable (if not more valuable) than efforts of those who happened to be born at the particular moment when they could see the results of their work for change.

Again, look at Chile: It would have been easy, once Pinochet took over, to assume that was the end of history. It would also have been wrong. What was true was that going through the dark, dark moment was not the end, that new possibilities could develop beyond the dark moment. (A good point to keep in mind as our own civil liberties decay, perhaps.)

There is no way to truly know the future. The easy path is to assume nothing can be done, the odds are too great. We all have a vested interest in pessimism: If you believe nothing can be done, you are off the hook, no responsibility.

In the end, I chose for possibility, for building forward, and then seeing what happens. The alternative is certain failure.

That said, my own deeper analysis of the emerging historical context suggests many reasons to believe that the steady development of a profoundly serious movement for change is highly likely, given the system’s failings. And that such a movement is likely to go beyond traditional activism to much deeper questions. (See Parts I and VI of my recent book, What Then Must We Do: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.)

In the speech on your website, you refer to a broken system that will change neither through reform nor revolution, but through what you call evolutionary reconstruction, which as I understand it, should allow correction of the inevitable unintended consequences that come with planning and markets and democratization of ownership? Please explain how scale considerations factor into this scenario.

I think the absence of a coherent vision of where we want to go has been one of the most important limiting factors that has constrained movements for change in many, many situations and countries.

There are really two parts to your question, so two answers: (1) “Reform” – as in liberalism, for instance – assumes that the existing corporate capitalist system will continue and that the task is to clean up around the edges; tax, spend, regulate (if you can), but don’t assume you can change the underlying system’s core institutions. (2) “Revolution,” means you change the underlying system and its core corporate capitalist institutions; usually the term also implies a violent overthrowing of power. I suggest there is a third possibility: (a) Yes, we do mean changing the underlying core institutions; but (b) No, not necessarily by a violent explosion. “Evolutionary reconstruction” involves the laying down of institutional structures, step by step, in diverse areas to steadily build a mosaic of democratizedownership – and also to steadily develop democratic ownership as an idea, indeed, an idea whose time has come (in Gramscian terms, to crack the hegemomic ideology). Thus: worker-owned firms, land trusts, state banks, municipal takeovers, maybe nationalization next time the big banks and General Motors go down (or the time after), etc, step by step over time, as the pain worsens and more and more people realize that something different must be done. What may happen if and when such foundations are established over substantial periods of time is indeterminate, but the process involved in the here and now is different from either of the traditional models.

Such a process can also help correct some (not all) of the problems of markets and of planning, above all because it builds a new culture. To really answer your question, however, I’m afraid would require more space than we have. (The planning section of the website might possibly be of interest.) As to the question of scale: It is very, very difficult to imagine anything like meaningful and participatory democracy in a Continental scale system of over 300 million people. We rarely talk about how huge and inherently undemocratic our Continental scale system is: You could tuck Germany into Montana! William Appleman Williams, the great radical historian (as well as many others, left and right, during the 1930s) urged that ultimately we will have to regionalize the system if we hope to have anything like meaningful democracy. I think he was right – and that any serious movement needs to begin considering what this means. (In my experience people find it easier to talk about overthrowing capitalism than they do about regionalizing the national system as the only way to achieve real democratic control – so it’s a very challenging issue!)

“Why do you hold that it is important to have a vision of where we want to go? Isn’t it enough just to fight back against all of the outrageous things that are happening?”

I think the absence of a coherent vision of where we want to go has been one of the most important limiting factors that has constrained movements for change in many, many situations and countries. At the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this explicitly: Most of what the civil rights movement was about – as was also the case for the feminist and gay rights movement – a demand for equal treatment in the existing system. (There were of course exceptions in all three movements, but the people who saw the need for broader systemic change were rarely the dominant voice in the national conversation). When the civil rights movement began demanding economic change, it came up against levels of power far greater (and more sophisticated) than the crude violence of the South. King understood that there could be no answer just getting into the system. What was needed was changing the system (to what he called some form of democratic socialism).

But if changing the system is what is required – and I agree – then it is incumbent on those of us who call for this to say what we mean. The truth is most people have been very vague or rhetorical about what they want, so for the most part they have little more than rhetoric to offer. Thankfully, we have seen the beginnings of some very serious discussions of what, specifically, a next system that you might want to live in might look like in recent years. It is a very positive sign: We are approaching the point where we might actually be able to say something clear and understandable in answer to the very reasonable question: “What specifically do you want? And why, specifically, would it be better than what we now have, or, for instance, better than the “socialism” of the Soviet era?” The site is an attempt to track some of the answers to these questions that I have been working to develop for the much of the past half a century.

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