America Beyond Capitalism

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* Book: America Beyond Capitalism. Gar Alperovitz: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006

See our treatment of the key concept of Pluralist Commonwealth.


Gar Alperovitz:

"Given the book's analysis of the dead-ends now facing most traditional strategies, a truly central question, ABC stresses, is whether Americans can achieve a practical and common-sense understanding of the traditional coop, social economy and democratic socialist principle that some form of social, public or quasi-public ownership of capital is both necessary and possible. In the absence of this understanding, it holds, we cannot expect to move beyond the difficulties now facing traditional social democratic politics in many countries, and progressive efforts in the United States. How to achieve widespread public understanding of the importance of changing the ownership of capital to other social, economic and planning goals is a key question—one that has hardly been broached by progressive theorist and activists. If changing the ownership of capital is important, then precisely how is this idea to be demonstrated and conveyed to large numbers of Americans in everyday life?

ABC returns again to practical experience to answer this question. It emphasizes the need to expand on real world forms that embody social ownership principles. Without the development of such principles and ‘knowledge' in day-to-day experience, ABC argues, it is difficult to imagine further progress towards genuinely democratic larger forms, or to a politics which builds on this principle. Most Americans have been taught to think of social ownership as inherently inefficient, undemocratic, even tyrannical. In the near term, the various practical efforts the book reports upon may be as important for what they teach about possibilities as what they accomplish in altering major trends. In this sense they are both precedents and instruments of popular education which help teach the practicality and common-sense nature of new principles. They may also slowly help build and nourish a larger community-building and more cooperative culture.

Although a massive "Great Depression" style collapse is unlikely, recurrent and deepening economic instability is likely to be the rule over the coming period. ABC also stresses that the fiscal crisis, on the one hand, and globalization, on the other, are forcing ever greater attention to neighborhood, municipal and other forms of enterprise which produce income flows for services—and to employee-owned firms and other institutions which anchor jobs in local communities threatened by global trade disruption. Not only are such efforts already politically viable; over time, there are reasons to believe they could become major (viable) large order political responses to these two ever-increasing challenges as well as to problems associated with periods of economic collapse. The new forms introduce into everyday life a set of political-economic principles, and they also help solve pressing immediate problems—thereby expanding political support. In this respect, again, the book's emphasis is on the next major step "beyond," not (yet) what might ultimately be achieved building forward on the basis of the emerging phase of development.

Other aspects of ABC's "phasing" and developmental understanding of long-term change which point in the direction of a larger vision include an emphasis on state and regional initiatives—especially as Congressional deadlocks continue both to frustrate major as opposed to modest efforts at reform, and to drive policy down to state and local decision, a condition that may persist even with a Democratic president and Congress, given the conservative biases and constituencies of many Democrats and the ability of 41 Senators to block most legislation through filibuster tactics. Regional level policy development in the direction of the larger model suggested by ABC is also already occurring in areas like New England, and in regional scale states like California. (In other writing I have noted how developments at the state and local level during the 1920s became precursors of major national New Deal policies and how important new regional ideas have evolved in recent years (Alperovitz 2007, 2006a).)

ABC concludes with an assessment of longer term opportunities for building the political and social support needed for any serious strategy. Possibilities for future change building beneath the seemingly quiescent surface are suggested by the Civil Rights, Feminist, Environmental movements—and also by the development from a once very marginal position of modern Conservatism. All began to take form at a time when there were few reasons to believe they might achieve serious momentum. A quietly building grass-roots politics of movement-building is already evident in many parts of the country, and--as various global and domestic problems continue to multiply--a more tumultuous, ardent and energized era of change could ultimately give new power to a serious longer term pluralist vision.

The concluding argument is straightforward (234-37):

... the first decades of the 21st century are likely to open the way to a serious debate about these and other systemic questions-and, further, that real world conditions during the coming period are likely to offer possibilities for establishing substantial foundations for a longer term systemic transformation thereafter.

The prospects for near term change are obviously not great-especially when such change is conceived in traditional terms. Indeed, although there may be an occasional important ‘progressive' electoral success, there is every reason to believe that most of the underlying trends will continue their decaying downward course. .

On the other hand, fundamental to the analysis presented in the preceding pages is the observation that for precisely such reasons we are likely to see an intensified process of much deeper probing, much more serious political analysis, and much more fundamental institutional exploration and development. We have also noted that there are important signs of change in the traditional "laboratories" of democratic process...

Few predicted either the 1960s or the conservative revolution which followed. Major eruptions and political realignments are the rule, not the exception in American history. Large numbers of working Americans, blacks and Hispanics who will become a majority as the century develops, senior citizens (and those who will shortly become seniors), women who seek practical ways to achieve thorough-going gender equality, liberals and conservatives alike who value family and community, environmentalists who cannot secure protections either for endangered goals or sustainable growth along current lines of development-all are finding it increasingly difficult to realize their objectives through traditional means...

None of this is to predict the inevitability of major positive change. On the other hand, history suggests that those who assume that nothing fundamental can ever change have repeatedly been wrong. It is appropriate—even urgent—that we clarify the principles and content of what might ultimately become the basis of a serious pluralist vision. Finally, of course, most of the immediate institutional and policy efforts which could help lay groundwork for (possible) longer term change would be useful to undertake no matter what—especially given the decaying failures of traditional approaches." (