Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution
If 1992 sounded the death knell for global communism, 2008 and the worldwide stagnation thereafter have left many disillusioned with market capitalism. Yet for generations, media, business and education have trumpeted the socialist/capitalist coin-toss so persistently, many citizens cannot imagine a third option exists. But what if a respected economist said forward thinkers have spent years building new options, right under our noses?
Maryland political economist Gar Alperovitz wants citizens to use their imaginations. We’ve become so trapped by the past, yearning for mid-20th century prosperity, that we try to recreate long-gone conditions. But neither triumphant American postwar prosperity nor aggressive liberal reforms are likely to recur, because the conditions that existed, roughly from 1930 to 1966, will never reappear. We may praise the past, but we must look to the future.
According to Alperovitz, the spectre of failed state socialism keeps economic discussion, left and right, beholden to corporate capitalism. Whether conservatives would use money as a barometer of virtue and entrust governance to the wealthy, or liberals want government and organized labor to provide counterweight to corporate power, we nevertheless assume corporate might is somehow normal. We have let a minority narrow our thinking.
Instead, Alperovitz calls attention to maverick innovators on the edges of our economy. As early as the 1970’s, trailblazers pioneered new approaches to ownership, industry, and democratic wealth. When workers engineered an unprecedented buyout of a floundering Ohio steel mill, Alperovitz was there, helping them forge a new kind of corporate charter. Alperovitz witnessed the rise of agricultural co-ops, pathbreaking land trusts, and philanthropic investing.
Alperovitz calls this a “checkerboard strategy.” Instead of waiting for national intervention, economic innovators focus on one town, area, or economic sector. Their innovations may reach as small as one business, or as large as an interstate compact. But they share common goals of transforming the way business, government, and people respond to the ever-changing needs of a volatile globalized economy.
At first blush, such pathbreakers have a long fight ahead. Looking around, we see stagnant global economies where long-term unemployment and bleak prospects have become normal. We can say, without exaggeration, that inequality has hit medieval levels. It’s easy to wallow in our own gloom. Alperovitz admits, “All of us have a vested interest in pessimism. We don’t have to do anything if nothing can be done!”
Realistic, ambitious attempts at economic reform have repeatedly failed because activists have put their trust in politicians and policy. That succeeded during the New Deal and Great Society due to unique historical circumstances. Today, kowtowing to politicians will help little, because government policy is part of the broken, lopsided system. Politics can do little about a society hobbled by more workers than work, and massively undemocratic concentrations of wealth.
But faced with such circumstances, some individuals and communities refuse to cave. They prove the long-term viability of collaborative business models and public-private hybrids. They invest money into new industries, even during recession, and draft new business categories driven by what Alperovitz calls a “triple-bottom-line” model: people, planet, and profits. They stare in the eye of economic despair and answer, “No.”
Alperovitz doesn’t waste readers’ time with pie-in-the-sky notions of how economies ought to run. He focuses instead on how dauntless innovators have successfully built new economic models that should serve to inspire millions to seize their own futures. Looking forward, Alperovitz challenges us to imagine ways we can build upon these successes, forging a society of democratic wealth and renewed community.
These suggestions don’t come easy. Alperovitz doesn’t promise quick fixes. Quite the contrary, he emphasizes the generational nature of his suggestions. We intend to build new social nstitutions that serve the greater good, Alperovitz repeatedly avers. The biennial focus on elections permits others to control our lives. Such essential surrender has successfully stripped democracy from our treasured democratic institutions.
Instead, Alperovitz extols visionary new ways we can assert power autonomously. While nobody can predict the future, we have the choice whether we let the future roll over us, or take a steering hand ourselves. We can continue along our current path, circumscribed by the options others offer. Or we can, in small and growing ways, blaze our own trail.
America is Earth’s richest, largest, most populous nation, which Alperovitz stresses repeatedly. The experiments we undertake don’t stop at our own borders. We have the choice: a new, democratic economy, or more of the same, with the disastrous consequences we see around us. Our past does not control our future.