You Can’t Change The Economy Without Fixing America’s Politics

Ed. note: This is the second 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; the third is forthcoming. You can read our previous book symposia here.

In the first part of our symposium, John Halpin outlined Gar Alperovitz’s faith in, and reliance on, the spread of “economic democracy” as a way of remaking corporate capitalism into a more humane social order. As John explains: “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’).”

John is sympathetic to Alperovitz’s goals and sees some merit in the sort of evolutionary economic democracy Alperovitz puts forward. So do I. Yet, after finishing the book, I’m still left with a number of questions about his blueprint for a slow-motion revolution.


First, Alperovitz explicitly links his argument for evolutionary economic democracy to the claim that systemic problems cannot really be dealt with by traditional methods like political parties, elections, and governance. The only times he suggests we have come close have been when we approached the brink of systemic collapse (The New Deal during the Great Depression) or in the aftermath of a devastating war (the post-World War II boom followed by the Great Society and the movements of the 60s). I don’t buy this. There have been other periods of serious reform in American history, like the Progressive Era, that didn’t correspond to either a war or a systemic collapse. It also isn’t particularly convincing to tie the reforms of the 1960s to a war that the preceded the reforms by two decades.

Alperovitz says that periods of strong economic growth and rising incomes make reforms easier. I agree. But I don’t see how the spread of worker-owned business and cooperatives is going to do much to produce these kinds of economic outcomes. The policies that would actually help do this (see CAP’s new report, 300 Million Engines of Growth) are, well, policies that would have to be enacted by Congress and state legislatures and signed by presidents and governors. You know, all that kind of messy stuff.

Not that Alperovitz is unaware that sometimes policies are important. Along the way to worker cooperative-land, he suggests we take advantage of periodic crises that may arise to take over the banks and institute a single-payer health care system (he calls these “crisis transformations”). But if he’s serious about making these things happen, we’re right back to the hard work of having enough progressive strength within the political system to seize the opportunity a crisis might provide.

Thus, while I applaud Alperovitz’s idealism and his call for more economic democracy, we should be very aware of the limitations of the approach he recommends. It will not produce the revolution he anticipates. Those working within the political system for a more humane and democratic capitalism should keep on doing just that.