In What Then Must We Do?, political economy professor Gar Alperovitz slowly and deliberately nudges readers off the traditional course of political activism assumed to bring about progressive change – elections, legislative fights, protest actions, firing the twin engines of grassroots Democratic groups and organized labor – arguing that these methods have failed. He finds readers at that moment of despair, when the best efforts we’ve known to create the space for change have failed. Indeed, he doesn’t believe that these efforts can reverse what is now a decades-long march of structural economic, environmental and political decline. “Absent major national shocks,” he writes, “the capacity for fundamental political change is limited in the American context.”
What then must we do? We must work, gradually, opportunistically, insistently, for democratization of the economic sphere, creating a nation of worker-owned cooperatives and publicly provided goods and services. This shift in the control and ownership of property – energy, broadband Internet, agriculture, banking, health care services, etc. – is happening, at an albeit glacial pace, in areas across the country, in ways we often don’t recognize. 130 million Americans are members of some kind of cooperative, 95 million through credit unions, which have benefited from the nascent “move your money” campaign out of big banks (I am among the ranks of credit union membership).
To use an isolated success story, Chattanooga, Tennessee, has the largest publicly provided municipal broadband Internet service in the country, delivering speeds as high as two hundred times faster than the national average, at an affordable price, distributed by the city’s publicly-owned electric utility. This deliberate effort to generate world-class local infrastructure has attracted businesses to Chattanooga, as well as other economic development. Examples like this litter the book.
It’s nice to think that an evolution of further democratization efforts, focused on the communities most receptive to the idea, while using them as models to bring the rest of the country along, can succeed in creating a more equitable society where prosperity is broadly shared. And certainly, shifting how wealth is owned and controlled could generally have a salutary effect, though I’m skeptical of automatically fitting all public ownership examples into a frame of absolute good. (Should state-owned oil companies excite us, or Alaska’s public distributions of dividends on oil deposits? Or airlines that happen to be publicly owned in countries controlled by dictatorships?)
I wish more attention was provided to the flip side of the democratization scenario, which is also happening right now around the country – the privatization of public assets. This has accelerated since the Great Recession, as cash-strapped municipalities seek ways to balance their budgets by stripping their cities and regions of their resources. And it’s happening with the full culpability of largely Democratic urban mayors. Philadelphia is selling off its historic Gas Works. Chicago sold its parking meters, to disastrous effect. Operations and maintenance on the main highway between Denver and Boulder, Colorado is now in private hands. And there are dozens of other examples of outright privatization or public-private partnerships, a key initiative of the Obama Administration. Alperovitz mentions this in passing, but stresses that there need to be simultaneous strategies of holding the line against these predatory privatization efforts, the selling of America to private interests, while also moving forward on other fronts with public provisions of things like broadband Internet and electricity and banking. (Sadly there was no mention of one of my personal hobby horses, a public option for simple banking through the US Postal Service.)
It’s also unclear to me whether Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) and worker-owned cooperatives have always and forever “embraced with a specific political-economic intent,” as Alperovitz claims. He notes the General Motors rescue as an example of how the government can take over a private company, and how the Voluntary employee benefit association (VEBA) of GM’s union partially owned the company in the aftermath. But of course, a feature of post-rescue GM is lower salaries for its line workers, hardly the intended outcome of worker ownership, in Alperovitz’ context. To use another example from the book, the biggest region in America for employee ownership is Ohio, which has been actively involved in such democratization for three decades. I don’t get the sense that their economy, wages and standard of living are somehow in better shape over that period than regions which have not embraced this model; in fact, quite the opposite. But perhaps this just means that they haven’t yet moved far enough in that direction. Alperovitz talks of evolutionary cycles, and when you are up against entrenched corporate interests, that’s probably the right way to think.
The book is excellent on dispelling the myth of privatization as an inherently more efficient manner to distribute goods and services. This conveniently neglects all the negative externalities private ownership incorporates, such as the threats to the economy from private banks (and the cost of the inevitable bailouts), the poor set of outcomes associated with our largely private health insurance system, the costs of “throwing away cities” by constantly moving factories to take advantage of tax benefits or lower wages, and so on.
Overall, I think Alperovitz nails the insufficiency of the current ways in which we think about motivating progressive change, and the suggestion of putting efforts into different economic models with workers and public interests at the forefront is a far better reaction than simple despair. “All of us have a vested interest in pessimism,” he writes, because it enables us to merely carp from the sidelines. We should rather have a vested interest in developing institutions that are sustainable, that aren’t dependent on endless growth at the expense of community interests, that serve the taxpayers who fund the system rather than narrow corporate lobbies, that will work toward reductions in inequality and the preservation of the planet instead of the pure profit motive.
I look forward to a good discussion on these issues. Welcome Gar Alperovitz to FDL Book Salon.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]