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Historian and economist Gar Alperovitz on the possibilities of the Great Recession



A couple of weeks ago, a wonky data visualization became a viral sensation. Titled "Wealth Inequality in America," it provided a stark illustration of the distribution of wealth in this country. While many of us already know that this country's wealth is tilted in one direction, it's even more shockingly skewed than we thought. To date, the video has received more than 4.3 million views on YouTube.

The data in the video wasn't news to Gar Alperovitz, an economist, historian and prolific writer on alternatives to capitalism. The 76-year-old University of Maryland professor wears many hats as a teacher, researcher, activist and filmmaker. His most well-known book, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, lays out the remarkable array of grassroots ownership strategies that local communities can pursue. Many of them are already familiar, such as food co-ops, and others, like credit unions, have become newly valued in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.

Here in the Triangle, the Self-Help Credit Union, Weaver Street Market, Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation and the Triangle Land Conservancy are among the most visible examples of the ownership initiatives that Alperovitz promotes.

America Beyond Capitalism was published in 2004, but it is more relevant than ever in the wake of the Great Recession. The changing landscape of the past few years has widened Alperovitz's audience and influence; a new book is coming soon, and he's just completed a 45-minute film called The Next American Revolution. A new edition of America Beyond Capitalism was recently published; accessible and frequently surprising, it deserves the kind of popular attention Howard Zinn's evergreen People's History of the United States receives. Alperovitz's book is wonkier than Zinn's, but it comes from a very similar place: an emphasis on the power of ordinary Americans to band together and take control of their lives. Alperovitz will talk about his ideas in two speeches this week in the Triangle. Recently, we spoke to him by telephone.

INDY WEEK: What do you plan to talk about in North Carolina?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: I think the central issue is whether we can begin to understand the challenge as a systemic challenge rather than simply a traditional political-economic challenge. And if we can do that, I think there are ways to begin to understand the strategy for dealing with the economy, with poverty, inequality, with ecological sustainability and climate change. But so far the discussion of most economic issues has been about policy—Should we have a bigger stimulus or a smaller stimulus? Should the Federal Reserve Board do more or less?—rather than on the underlying institutions that establish the terms of reference and power that allow you to make decisions. I think we've been avoiding systemic issues, and I think it's time now that we have to confront them, or the decaying trends will simply continue.

You've described a vision of a new set of economic and political relationships that you call a "pluralist commonwealth." Could you describe that for our readers?

There are literally thousands of new economic institutions that are essentially changing the way political-economic power and wealth ownership is organized. So the pluralist commonwealth vision simply suggests that, one, if we are to make progress—and I'm a historian as well as an economist—over time, step-by-step, we're going to have to build up more democratic institutions, economic institutions. So for instance, there are 10,000 worker-owned companies of one kind or another in the country. And they are expanding over time, and they're becoming more democratic rather than less. There are 130 million people who are members of one or another cooperatives. Twenty-five percent of American electricity is produced by either municipal ownership or cooperatives. Twenty-five percent of American electricity is, in short, "socialized." There are land developments and green developments under land trusts, which are kind of neighborhood ownerships.

And as I say, I'm a historian; I think what's interesting is to think of these as they are developing because of the economic pain. They're developing—I think of it decade by decade, like the Progressive Era or the pre-history of the Populist Era—several decades of development in which failure at the national level, growing inequality, growing pain, growing difficulties, is forcing people to innovate. As a historian, it's obvious to me that political-economic systems come and go in history. And their change, fundamental change, is as common as grass.

Most people can't pull back far enough from day-to-day problems to see their own time historically and the possibility of development. But what I think is forcing many, many, many people to think about this is the growing failure and economic pain of the current institutional structure. Or to put it another way, its systemic design, it's crumbling before our eyes. So it's a very, very interesting time both of pain and of innovation.

What is the role of the federal government in the kinds of development that you see happening and think needs to happen, needs to accelerate? Do we pay too much attention to the federal government?

Well, the federal government is usually the last place rather than the first place where change begins. At one point in my career I was the legislative director in both the House and the Senate, and I did policy planning at the high levels of the State Department. Sometimes, rarely, you can get advances, and I think you should seize them whenever possible. So, for instance, there are—most people don't realize this, but the federal government currently runs 140 different government banks. They aren't called banks always, although sometimes they are, like the Export-Import Bank and the co-op bank [National Cooperative Bank]. But sometimes they're called small business loans programs. And those programs can be used to finance worker co-ops, which are growing around the country, neighborhood development—that sort of thing is possible using federal support. And I think in many parts of the country, people are realizing that and using that. But most of the development starts at the local level, at the state level, and I think that's where inevitably it has to build power before we're in a position to make serious demands on federal support.

Some of your ideas about the relationship between federal government and local governments and local communities seem consistent with certain conservative critiques.

In many cities, what really counts is practicality. We find small businessmen and people who would consider themselves conservative with a small "c" are very supportive, and indeed helpful, trying to get solutions to problems of this kind. It's very different from national ideologues who make their living on radio or in politics touting political slogans. Genuine conservatives, in my experience, do care about practical things. They're worried about big government and big banks and big corporations, and they're reasonable in that there are reasons to worry. And they're open to many, many things at some level. That doesn't mean progressive politics and conservative politics coincide at every level; they obviously don't. You know, some of these areas, there are surprising support coalitions possible in doing real things.

You're involved with the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland [which comprises several worker-owned green businesses situated in depressed areas of the city]. Do you see any evidence of this kind of model spreading?

Since our group [Democracy Collaborative, a Washington D.C.-based community development initiative] has been heavily involved with helping develop these new models, we're also involved in several other cities where there's substantial progress going forward to develop variations on the same theme. At last count, we've had inquiries from, well, depending on how you count it, about 20 very serious inquiries from cities, and probably something like 100 different cities are exploring something like the Cleveland model.

You come to North Carolina at a time when progressives are really in retreat. In the General Assembly, both chambers are under Republican control, and so is the governor's mansion. They recently voted to reject the increased Medicaid funds that were made available through Obamacare; they've cut unemployment benefits; and they're talking about eliminating the income tax and raising the sales tax. So there's a lot of demoralization among progressives. What opportunities for organizing and going forward would you suggest to North Carolina progressives?

I come out of liberal politics. I'm a Wisconsin progressive. And what has happened to traditional liberal politics, of the kind you're just talking about and I've experienced, is that the political-economic power base of liberal politics has decayed. Essentially, labor unions have decayed, from just under 35 percent of the labor force, now less than 11 percent, less than 7 percent of the private sector. And one of the results is in decaying politics of the traditional kind.

The pain that flows from this failure, social and economic pain, and the sense of stalemate is very demoralizing at one level, but at the other level, it is precisely what is creating all this innovation and new institutions and worker-owned companies and land trusts and neighborhood corporations and a whole bubbling up of attempting to build different institutions, primarily because the old direction just isn't going anywhere, and it's either innovate or fail and continue to fail. So if you stand back from this, you know, if you face it directly, it's very painful and very disturbing, the ideas are disturbing because the old ways don't work and people get depressed.

If you stand back from it historically, what you see is the beginning movement towards transforming ownership of productive wealth, of taking on new institutional forms that are not big corporations, which change the pattern of democratization. In health care, many states are going to be moving towards single-payer health care under public pressures. Banking systems like that of North Dakota, which is public, 20 states are considering these, so it's not only the worker-owned co-ops. It's on different levels precisely because of the conservative reaction and the failings of traditional politics, progressive politics. People are forced to innovate.

America Beyond Capitalism was recently re-released, is that right?

Yes, it has a large theoretical section and then it reviews developments as of a few years ago and some of the major theoretical points, as well. People tell me it's a fast read, suggesting why, and answering why—I hope, really answering, but I hope at least addressing—the question you're raising. Given the painful failings and dead-ends of current progressive politics, is there another direction that might be merged?

The ownership of wealth is probably the most important basis of politics. And for American ownership of wealth, the top 400 people—and let me underline that word, people—400 people, individuals, own more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans. And that's deeply related to political power, and virtually all of the things we're talking about change who owns wealth, so I see it as very critical in terms of the underlying institutional base of the next political-economic system that we build.

Interview transcribed by Emma Miller.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The next American revolution?"

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