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Why The Left Should Reject ‘Community’

By Zack Beauchamp  

"Why The Left Should Reject ‘Community’"

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Time for your community meeting. (Credit: Flickr user Achifaifa)

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

What Then Must We Do? is a strange book to review. On the one hand, the largest significant chunk of the narrative is a rather interesting catalog of private and local experiments in building new left-progressive economic institutions; it’s invigorating to read a hopeful cri de coeur for new leftist political strategies in place of the more traditional garment-rending.

But on the other, Alperovitz’s vision of where all this new power should be pushing us is problematic at best, and downright dangerous at worst. In their installments, John and Ruy both found something to like in Alperovitz’s vision of “economic democracy;” I think, while it sounds good in broad outlines, the sort of localized, sweeping “democracy” Alperovitz endorses as a political utopia is unintentionally hostile to individual freedom and curiously indifferent to the way it echoes one of the 20th century’s most dangerous ideological innovations.

In Alperovitz’s telling, the American political system is broken because the rich own it. “Political-economic systems are largely defined by the way property is owned and controlled,” he writes. “It tends to produce political as well as economic power.” Our system (Alperovitz labels it “corporate capitalism”) has largely ceded control over productive property to a small group of elites; they leverage that power via (among other mechanisms) campaign donations and lobbying budgets to stack the political deck in favor of their class interests. The major progressive economic victories in the 20th century were aberrations, historical accidents caused by the Great Depression and World War II. The power base that allowed for these changes, particularly unions, will continue to decline as the inexorable logic of the stacked systemic deck takes its toll.

Alperovitz thinks the way out of this trap is quietly, slowly redistributing control over property to the people. He proposes a number of specific strategies for accomplishing this goal, ranging from the expansion of worker-owned corporations to state and local initiatives aimed at strengthening progressive sectors of the economy to taking advantage of crises in major industries (e.g., banking) to nationalize key sectors of the American economy.

Inasmuch as this sets up an innovative playbook for expanding political counterweights to corporate industries and conservative groups, Alperovitz’s work is critically important. Thinking about progressive political power bases beyond unions and the Democratic Party is vital, and you don’t see much of it in mainstream political commentary.

But Alperovitz has something much bigger in mind. Dismissing the idea that corporate power can be counterbalanced absent fundamental change, Alperovitz argues for wholesale transformations of both how wealth is owned and American political institutions. These revolutions, Alperovitz argues, will be brought about by changing the way that Americans think about “democracy.” Our concept of democracy, he argues, must be broadened well beyond the political sphere: It must also become the watchword by which we govern our economic and personal lives. In order to create a more “democratic” distribution of wealth, we must make more democratic citizens. All of his specific proposals serve as building blocks in service of this larger project.

Alperovitz’s proposed vision of a more “democratic” America is dubious at best, perhaps partly because he never defines just what “democracy” means as a concept. Alperovitz suggests an (equally amorphous) vision of “community” is at the heart of a more democratic America; “the profound challenge of community,” he argues, should be our lodestar in political action. One way he proposes strengthening communities is localism: “decentralization is essential — both of economic institutions and of political structure.”

This sort of localist communitarianism has, historically speaking, had a conservative valence for a reason: Local communities have long been the sites of the nation’s most brutal oppressions, to which scaled-up federal action was the only recourse. Civil rights for blacks, women, and gays are the obvious examples. As the immediate disenfranchising effects of the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act become plain, it’s clear that these forms of local discrimination are still in need of some kind of federal remedy. There’s also an economic critique of localism: Consider, for instance, the decision by 14 Republican-controlled state governments to reject a federal Medicaid expansion because it’s part of Obamacare.

Alperovitz wants serious devolution, going well beyond the “progressive federalism” some advocate. “The challenges presented to democracy by large scale…call out for serious work on decentralization,” he writes. “If most states are too small to manage major economic problems, and the continent too large, regional units become logically inevitable.” How is devolution, even to a grouping somewhat larger than a state, going to advance a left economic agenda given the actual politics of many American “communities?”

Alperovitz would likely answer that significant devolution should only happen after we’ve built a better polity. Expose Americans to genuine democracy in their local and professional lives, the thinking goes, and they’ll come around to a more progressive way of thinking. Alperovitz’s approving quote of this Jane Mansbridge line makes the point succinctly: “Without an extensive program of decentralization and workplace democracy, few people are likely to have the political experiences necessary for understanding their interests.”

Setting aside the “everyone would agree with my politics if only they were properly educated” undertone (might some people authentically be conservatives?), there’s something weirdly authoritarian about Alperovitz’s point here. In his view, the only way to make people into properly right-thinking social democrats is to make them experience “democracy” all the time; rebuilding the “American community” requires that Americans “have democracy with a small d in [their] actual experience and everyday community life.”

It sounds appealing in the abstract, but in reality, most people don’t really want to be actively democratic all the time. Contra Alperovitz’s implicit assumption, voter turnout in local is as low as half that of the already-low national average. Consistently-low turnout can be ascribed to a variety of causes, but there’s at least one is undeniable: not every American cares enough about politics to vote. The core finding of over 60 years of research on American public opinion is that the public doesn’t know very much about politics; its opinions are poorly sourced and prone to wild shifts based on slight rephrasing of poll prompts.

In many cases, that’s because people simply don’t want to follow politics. Even during the spellbinding 2008 election, a historic high of 43 percent of Americans were closely following the election (the same survey indicated that number dropped following Obama’s victory). Only 37 percent, according to one poll, followed the 2012 election closely. And presidential election years are the times of highest political activity and media coverage.

While a recent survey shows higher interest in local news — 72 percent closely follow local goings-on — the definition of “news” includes restaurants and the weather. Interest in local politics “is driven by the older adults in this group,” according to the survey’s authors, which correlates with the general trend towards older Americans being more politically engaged than younger ones. At the very least, high levels of interest in local news and low levels of interest in national news challenges Alperovitz’s assumption that “democratizing” society will make everyone more engaged (and leftist) on questions of national import.

In some cases, it may be that people are simply unable to follow politics — their income level leaves them no time for leisure pursuits. But that isn’t likely to be true in anything close to all cases of political ignorance. Instead, it seems more likely, and certainly more in line with what we know about human nature, that they simply don’t find politics to be that interesting. People prefer devoting their lives to their jobs, their favorite sports, debating the summer movie lineup, playing in a band, building a better rocking chair — whatever it is that they find personally fulfilling. Politics, to these Americans, simply isn’t near and dear to their hearts.

Alperovitz would likely say this is exactly the problem he’s setting out to address. Americans simply don’t experience enough everyday democracy to see why it’s valuable, he’d say. If only we set up institutions to serve as democratic training wheels, then they’d come to (rightly) understand how important political practice is to their lives and spend their time accordingly.

For this response to work, these institutions would have to be in a certain sense compulsory, not voluntary. I’m not talking about laws that force people to attend their city council meeting. I mean more that people wouldn’t, in Alperovitz’s utopia, have any choice but to participate in some form of deliberative institution — they must experience enough genuine democracy in their individual lives to mold them into the ideal Alperovitzian citizen. As he puts it, “The answer to the question ‘Can you have genuine democracy with a big D in a continental nation if its citizens have little genuine experience of democracy with a small d in their own lives?’ is simple: No.” The people must be made to be democratic, so they can be democrats.

Alperovitz certainly would disavow the idea that his vision of democracy is in any sense coercive, but in reality, that’s the only way his ambitious goal of retraining people in democracy could be accomplished in practice. Given the very strong evidence already discussed that most Americans aren’t all that interested in remaking themselves into democratic citizens, it wouldn’t do to simply set up a few voluntary small-d democratic institutions and call it a day. Revolutionizing the way Americans think requires, well, revolutionary change – a fundamental shift in the entirety of the basic building blocks of American political and economic life, one so large that no American would be able to opt out of it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be remaking America as a national community so much as remaking a small community of Americans.

There’s something deeply unfree about this vision. What if people don’t want to participate in workplace democracy or attend community meetings? What if they like a workplace where they can punch in, punch out, and get a paycheck that they use to fund the things — family, religion, hobbies — that they really care about? It seems that Alperovitz’s vision involves giving citizens no choice but to spend massive amounts of time being trained in democracy, whether they’d like it or not. The idea that the end goal of the left’s new political movement should be giving people less choice over how they spend their time seems to be a rejection of the priority of freedom as a political value, an abdication of the ideal that the purpose of society should be giving each person the greatest possible ability to determine their own destiny without coercion from state, employer, or society.

The idea that taking away a person’s control over how she spend her own time is a form of mandating unfreedom should be familiar to leftists, as it directly parallels one of the most incisive left-wing critiques of libertarian “market freedom.” Political theorist Corey Robin puts this point plainly in an excellent post on the ways in which markets, particularly in essential goods like health care, corrode freedom. In Robin’s telling, markets force us to devote our time towards becoming educated consumers as a matter of sheer survival. All that time spent learning about health plans and filling out paperwork is time we’d rather spend on the things we care about, but we can’t because the market won’t let us. In that sense, then, markets can be as unfreeing as any state. In Robin’s words:

In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it…Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else.

I’d submit that Alperovitz’s “democracy, all the way down” erodes freedom in precisely the same way. Though he does it the name of democracy and equality instead of market efficiency, Alperovitz also wants to use the power of the state to define who people are and what they should spend their time doing. This is nothing less than a comprehensive project of reshaping the nature of the American polity: in his words, the goal is “rebuilding the essential understanding of ourselves and our nation as a community.” The idea that some people might want to be redefined as fully political beings (like, say, conservative or politically disinterested Americans) doesn’t figure in Alperovitz’s account. We’d be better off as a “community,” so it’s time to make people want to be part of one.

What’s especially problematic about this form of communitarian thinking is how throwback Soviet it is. One of the Soviet Union’s central ideological tenets was the idea of a “New Soviet Man,” a previously unknown and distinctly socialist person who would prosper in the new revolutionary conditions. Historian Peter Kenez describes one of the main purposes of the Soviet Union’s extensive network of ideological controls and propaganda as “the creation of a socialist human being,” a point that former Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky echoes in his “cultural history” of the state. One can hear similar themes in accounts of China’s disastrous, murderous Cultural Revolution.

To be clear: I am not saying Alperovitz’s substantive political program in any sense resembles Soviet tyranny. That’s a cheap and nasty way to discredit left-wing thought, and I want to be clear I’m not even attempting to imply it. What I am saying is that, as a matter of political philosophy, the left should reject remaking humanity as a political project, as it’s both on its face unfreeing and leads nowhere good. Talk about remaking humanity, leftist or otherwise, has historically been a flop with a body count. One of the central lessons of the 20th century should be that individual rights to self-determination and freedom of conscience should be sacrosanct, and that the idea that the state can build a better person is anathema to those very rights. After all, if a person needs to be remade, and the outmoded person is exercising her rights to skip the reeducation program, what are rights but impediments to a better future? It’s not what Alperovitz himself advocates (which, again, is benign), but what his philosophical thinking opens the door to.

Fortunately, Alperovitz’s inchoate communitarianism can be fully shorn from his policy proposals. The idea that more workplace democracy and local innovation on green energy can help build up a power base for progressive politics isn’t intrinsically communitarian in his sense. Understood as both part of a political strategy to fight corporate influence and a means to make people’s lives better and freer, these initiatives are worth pursuing. It’s only when they’re united under the banner of building a new “democratic man” that my Orwellian hackles get raised.

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