Posted 12 months ago on May 26, 2012, 6:05 p.m. EST by PeterKropotkin
from Oakland, CA
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Gar Alperovitz is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative. He is the author of numerous books, including Unjust Deserts, Making a Place For Community, Rebuilding America, Atomic Diplomacy, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and America Beyond Capitalism.
(Image: alternativeradio.org) What’s interesting—and, again, the press doesn’t cover this—is just below the surface of what the press normally sees. There are thousands and thousands of institutions that democratize the ownership of wealth. Political and economic systems are defined in terms of their power. But who owns the capital?
In the U.S. 1% owns just under half of the investment capital, 5% owns 70%. Literally, a medieval power structure. So if there is to be a democratic alternative, what you look for is: Are there ways that democratic ownership can happen? Indeed, if you look closely, there are some 13 million people involved in one form or another of worker-owned companies, a form that changes who owns; there are 130 million people involved in credit unions and co-ops, another democratized form of ownership; there are 4,000 or 5,000 neighborhood corporations, devoted to neighborhood development; there are 2,000 utilities that are owned by cities. People don’t realize that. A quarter of the American electricity supply is essentially socialized in a radically decentralized way, utilities and co-ops, city-owned utilities. And it’s been growing. There’s a whole quiet building up of a different model that has a very American tone to it but goes at the central question of who owns capital, who owns the wealth. That I think is a critical basis for possible longer- term change.
And what do you mean by a particular American tone? Unlike France, for instance, or Russia or the former Soviet Union, we have a very decentralized tradition, localism and states and kind of participatory American idea that comes from the agricultural frontier days. So there is something in the culture that can go many different ways: it can go far to the right, to individualism, but it also has community spirit and a kind of you-can do-it, roll-up- your-sleeves, we-can-try-something-here.
The models that are interesting—and I think of this as a long historical development—are very much at the local, neighborhood, workplace level of democratizing. I see that, one, as a precondition of how you could actually develop a system which was not state-dominated but also change who owned the productive capital. That’s a precondition, building up that kind of an experienced culture and also a vision, models of what could be. It also in a funny way has a Gramscian aspect, because it cracks open in a very American way the ideological question. That is to say, it opens up the question of who owns capital in a practical way rather than in a challenging way. That’s another question. The challenge part is needed. But here you have ordinary Americans doing worker-owned companies. What do we make of that? Why not? And why can’t that expand?
You write further, “If such cooperative efforts continue to increase in number, scale and sophistication, they may suggest the outlines, however tentative, of something very different from both traditional corporate-dominated capitalism and traditional socialism.” That is what’s interesting about this to me. At one level this is all very positive, it’s all useful and it’s helpful and it’s a good thing to do. But much more interesting is whether or not these kinds of developments, if we are aware and self-conscious and clarify the meaning, give people a sense, and even an ideological perspective, of what might be possible. Re-creating a sense of the possible and a sense of vision and something beyond rhetoric, something that gives content to an alternative structure of beyond corporate capitalism and beyond the traditional state socialist models. You need to have that if you’re to build a movement that gets beyond rhetoric and also has something concrete to do and say.
So, yes, I see it as both useful to do no matter what, but also laying down ideas and practices and experience and expertise of how actually do you do a good worker-owned company, not rhetorically. And what are its limits? There are problems with worker-owned companies, too. Getting much more sophisticated about what it is we want and what it is that makes sense.
And you realistically observe that these efforts are minor compared with the power of Wall Street banks and the other giants of the American economy. Are they willingly going to go along with the weakening and evisceration of their own power?
Of course not. The struggle for real triumph over the systemic issues is a many-decade struggle. So if you say now is the fight, tomorrow, it’s obvious that the deck is stacked. If that’s where the confrontation comes, that’s not going to happen. On the other hand, if you take—I wear a hat as a political economist and historian, but if you stand back and ask, how does historical change really take place, what you’re looking at is decades of developmental struggle, both negative, challenging, and the creation of ideas, projects, vision, concrete ideology.
What I think is interesting is the failures of the American system. I think they are endemic now. I don’t think they are going to go away, I don’t think the pendulum is going to swing. I think we’re into deep stagnation and decay and pain. That is the forming ground of people waking up and saying something is profoundly wrong, not just who wins the next election. Occupy cracked open the debate about the 1% and the 99%. But that would not have happened if people didn’t feel there was something wrong. Much more important even than Occupy is that there is a sense in the public that something is wrong. So I see it as a long, long battle and a long developmental process. Another way to look at it is—and we’ve been doing a fair amount of work in the Midwest, where the destruction of cities is just powerful—that’s the internal empire. And at the tail end of the internal empire the pain is greatest. But it’s also the place where people are struggling to build something new. So if you see it historically—you can even see it in traditional terms—many of the preconditions of even the New Deal were developed in the states and localities, some of them state by state, decade by decade. The women got the vote in the 19th century decade by decade by decade, one state and another state and another state, until finally they accumulated enough power to go national. This is the prehistory of a possible transformation, not the history of it. My heroes are the civil rights workers in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s. That’s when the real work was done, laying the groundwork and building up ideas and people and inspiration that ultimately could become the 1960s. That’s the hard place. Something roughly analogous is the way I think about this period.
In America Beyond Capitalism, to reinforce what you said about Americans in large numbers feeling that something’s not quite right, you write, “Repeated studies have shown the majority of Americans know full well that something fundamental is going on with ‘democracy’“— and I’m interested that you put “democracy” in quotes; I’ll ask you to explain that in a moment—“and four out of five judge that government leaders say and do anything to get elected, then do whatever they want, and another study found that seven out of ten felt that ‘people like me have almost no say in the political system.’”
Not only is that now true, that people sense that and they know money is dominating, and even more so with the Citizens United decision, that people understand that. But what’s very interesting—and, again, if you’re thinking about transformative change in stages of development— three decades ago the numbers were just the opposite. If you asked somebody, “Do the politicians or the president or the Congress do what people say?” they said, “Well, of course they do what the people say.” So there has been a major ideological shift, consciousness shift, negative in this case, that something is wrong, it’s all rigged, or Washington is broken or whatever the language is, or four out of five saying they will just do anything to get elected. That is a—more important than the shift— a profound change in the sense of direction of understanding in the ordinary public. You can’t get to much more fundamental change until you eliminate the possibility of believing in some of the foolishness. That’s going on big time in the U.S. People sense there’s something profoundly wrong. They don’t quite know what to do with it, they are still struggling with that. But awareness has grown over my lifetime in a way that’s astounding. You suggest these efforts toward building some kind of alternative worker-owned structures will take many decades, that we’re now in the incipient stages. Am I summarizing correctly?
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