America beyond Capitalism

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  • Gar Alperovitz. America beyond Capitalism. John Wiley, 2005.


From the review by Len Krimerman"

"According to its publisher’s publicity release, America Beyond Capitalism “offers hope for the future.” The evidence offered for this hopeful scenario is two-fold: first, that a vast array of diverse micro-level economic alternatives, consistently ignored by the mass media, is developing throughout every region of this beleaguered land; and second, that these neighborhood-, community- and state-based alternatives are heading us towards a “radical restructuring," a new homegrown all-american macro-system―beyond capitalism, beyond socialism, neither liberal, conservative, red, or blue―which Alperowitz calls a Pluralist Commonwealth (PC).

The priorities of this emerging PC vision are straightforwardly progressive; they include:

• Developing institutions that hold wealth and make investments on behalf of the public, e.g., on the model of state-wide pension funds;

• Maximizing opportunities, especially for those now excluded, to gain control over their own wealth, and that of the enterprises in which they work, e.g., through worker owned cooperatives, democratic ESOPs, and community-based economic enterprises;

• Decentralizing “continental-scale” government by transferring political power to regions, states, and municipalities;

• Increasing opportunities for democratic participation through increasing economic security and subsidizing free time for all; e.g., by cutting back the work week, while keeping income constant.

The author is at his best when he either describes the emerging panoply of micro-level economic alternatives, from worker-owned firms to state-run pension funds to municipally-owned utilities to community development corporations (Chapters 8-10), or provides a clarifying philosophical account of the basic ideals of his macro-system (Chapter 6 and Conclusion). But he leaves this reader, at least, with a strong sense of disconnect between these two levels of analysis and practice." (



"The disconnect arises from several distinct sources. On one hand, the micro-level activity has been around, in one form or another, since the 1970s, and it hasn’t yet dented the entrenched continental, centralized, capitalist system one iota. Indeed, as our micro-alternatives have grown by bits and pieces, with gains and losses, the other side has grown exponentially, indeed, monstrously―colossally. So why should we believe that by doing more of what we have been doing we will get anywhere close to the PC, in say, twenty or fifty years? Alperovitz tends to respond to this sort of objection by taking the “long view”: in the “long arc of the 21st century,” he tells us, what we are doing will be seen as having laid the necessary groundwork for radical restructuring. But this remains speculation, and in any case, as John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”


Secondly, many of the “alternatives”―take it from someone who has worked within a bunch of them― are hardly allies of the PC. Community development corporations are frequently run as fiefdoms, state pension funds often are hardly more transparent or accessible to genuine democratic control than WalMart or Enron, ESOPs are notorious for offering diluted ownership without worker control or even job security. What’s small or local is not always, and not for that reason alone, beautiful. Worst yet, many (most?) of the alternatives ABC reports on depend on corporate capitalism; after all, that’s where they primarily purchase the bulk of their supplies, or invest the public’s money.


Third, most of these scattered micro-initiatives have rarely if ever worked together, formed coalitions, developed common strategies. It strikes me as unlikely that the PC vision itself will overcome this condition of organizational isolation and egoism. But if not, what will bring these “alternative” groups out of their own private shadows and into a united force for progressive change? The book is silent here.


Finally, for our purposes, the problem of upscaling micro-initiatives to more-than-local levels and, in particular, to the federal level, is not well addressed. For example, Alperovitz recommends establishing a “major new” federal institution, a “Public Trust,” to “oversee the investment of stock on behalf of the public.” The obvious question is why he imagines that this Trust can be trusted? What will keep it accountable, much less responsive, to the actual public’s will? There may be answers to these questions, but ABC does not offer any. We can understand how a neighborhood credit union or community loan fund remains under the control of its local constituency, but a national Public Trust is quite another―and much more difficult―entity to keep under citizen control. This problem is compounded by the book’s avoidance of the need to challenge the current political-penal-military system; but if this is left intact, can we really expect to arrive at a democratic alternative beyond corporate capitalism?" (