What Will It Take To Achieve A Truly Fair Economy?

Ed. note: This is the first post in a TP Ideas symposium on Gar Alperovitz’s What Then Must We Do: Straight Talk About The Next American Revolution. A second and third installment are forthcoming. You can read our previous book symposia here.

Borrowing a line from Tolstoy, Gar Alperovitz’s latest book, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, seeks to resolve a troublesome political puzzle: How do we eradicate systemic problems like inequality, climate destruction, and poverty when these problems seem to get worse and worse, year after year, despite the good efforts of social reformers, progressives, and radicals of all stripes? Good question.

Alperovitz’s earlier book with Lew Daly, Unjust Deserts: How the Rich are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take it Back, combined an empirical analysis of the public origins of private wealth with a clear-headed philosophical rationale for recapturing and reinvesting public investment in education and technology through progressive taxation and other forms of social redistribution. But in this new book, Alperovitz is clearly frustrated with the inability of traditional politic methods — organizing movements, winning elections, pressuring leaders, and passing legislation — to adequately redress systemic problems. He views the big liberal moments of the past, like the New Deal and post-war expansion of the middle class, as historical aberrations, products of system-wide collapse and war-fueled economic growth that cannot be replicated today.

Given our current historical context, he argues for a number of innovative approaches for slowly replacing rapacious corporate capitalism with a more humane, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable economic system. Rather than mounting a revolutionary attack on the existing order like earlier forms of socialism, Alperovitz advocates steadily scaling up a series of smaller, more democratic forms of organization from worker-owned businesses and cooperatives (“evolutionary reconstruction”) to municipal ownership and other public enterprises (“checkerboard state development”).

On top of these efforts, he calls for more creative approaches to resolving capitalist-induced “crisis” moments like the housing and banking collapse. Alperovitz posits, “[C]onsider what might have happened if the government and the UAW had used the General Motors stock they received because of the bailout to reorganize the company along full or joint public-worker ownership lines –- and the new quasi-public General Motors’ product line were linked to a serious plan both to develop the nation’s mass transit and rail system and to target jobs to economically distressed cities.” Or imagine if America, like other nations, had more public banks, regional development funds, municipal credit agencies, public utilities, and transportation systems. Our economy could be both more democratic and more productive as many economists have concluded when analyzing modern state enterprises in Europe and Asia.

Contra Alperovitz, it’s yet to be proven that more traditional forms of political activism have failed, a point that’s entirely consistent with acknowledging the clear limitations inherent to President Obama’s efforts to build a “new foundation” for the economy and Occupy Wall Street’s stalled efforts to fight inequality and corporate money in politics. To his credit, Alperovitz recognizes that it’s certainly possible for a more just, fair, and sustainable economy to emerge through the means put forth in his earlier book, perhaps even faster than employing the evolutionary steps he proposes.

The real strength to Alperovitz’s new approach lies in its communitarian underpinnings. His suggested alternatives to “corporate capitalism” and “state socialism” place community efforts and genuine democratic participation at the forefront of how we organize our economy, from the production of goods and services to the ownership and management of our biggest enterprises. The question of who runs the economy and in what manner is a powerful one, especially at a time when so many Americans have lost faith in the capacity of the institutions created in the past century — corporations, unions, and governments — to solve our biggest problems.

Alperovitz’s solutions may not be for everyone. Nevertheless, his commitment to community-based economics with real opportunities for individual ownership and pride at work is refreshing and reminds us of America’s historical commitment to ensuring democratic participation in our capitalist system.