Gar Alperovitz is an important American scholar—he’s a historian and political economist whose work I found out about through Noam Chomsky’s praise of America Beyond Capitalism. Alperovitz co-founded the Democracy Collaborative, which is an important organization that describes its mission as follows:
The Democracy Collaborative’s mission is to demonstrate in theory and in practice the principles of a democratic economy, offering a vision of what that economy can be, designing models that demonstrate how it operates, and building in coalition with others the pathways to a new reality. By making the democratic economy conceivable, visible, and practical, we open minds, ignite hope, and inspire action.
There’s a standard framing of institutional issues that pits the USSR’s authoritarian model against top-down state capitalist institutions, but this framing leaves out a third and—arguably—much better option: democratic institutions.
I urge readers to visit the Democracy Collaborative’s website, since it’s an important website about practical projects and institutional change.
I was honored/thrilled to interview Alperovitz. See below my interview with him, which I edited for flow, organized by topic, and added hyperlinks to.
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Before we plunge into the interview, it’s important to recognize how mainstream democratic ideas used to be in America—some people will call these ideas “radical”, and so it’s interesting to consider the history in order to get some perspective.
The pioneers who saw a generation ago the thread that would lead us through this labyrinth and into the free air have now become a multitude. That thread is the thread of democracy, whose principles must and will rule wherever men co-exist, in industry not less surely than in politics. It is by the people who do the work that the hours of labour, the conditions of employment, the division of the produce is to be determined. It is by them the captains of industry are to be chosen, and chosen to be servants, not masters. It is for the welfare of all that the coördinated labour of all must be directed. Industry, like government, exists only for the coöperation of all, and like government, it must guarantee equal protection to all. This is democracy, and democracy is not true only where men carry letters or build forts, but wherever they meet in common efforts. The declaration of independence yesterday meant self-government, to-day it means self-employment, which is but another kind of self-government.
Maybe the arguments for democratic institutions are correct or maybe not, but the idea that these ideas are somehow “radical” just doesn’t hold up if you look into American history.
1) What are the most exciting projects that you’re currently working on?
The most exciting and immediate project is the one that we might do with the City of Chicago, which is similar to what we’ve done in Youngstown, Ohio and in Cleveland, Ohio and in Preston, Lancashire.
These projects—whether you take the Cleveland model or the Preston model—try to develop various forms of democratic ownership and rebuild community economics around principles of democratic ownership. These projects stabilize jobs through worker-owned community/direct ventures. So the goal is to rebuild the community and have joint community/cooperative ownership, and so it’s about an entire community structure as opposed to just standalone projects.
In Cleveland, the Evergreen Corporation is the big umbrella organization and subordinated to that as joint ventures are various worker-owned companies: a large industrial laundry, companies that do solar installation, and a company that does recycling projects.
With these projects, you run into a trap: property values go from very low to very high as soon as the community develops, and that forces the residents out. But you can set up nonprofit land trusts around an entire neighborhood to own the property on the community’s behalf, and then if the land value rises you can either control low-income families’ renting- and ownership-costs or else you can allow part of the land trust to subsidize those costs.
2) What are the most exciting projects that you know of that others are working on?
There’s an awful lot of experimentation with solar, recycling, co-op housing, worker-owned companies, and public banks.
The challenge is to start to integrate these ideas—that have developed over the past 30 years—in order to have large-scale impact, rebuild communities, and ultimately rebuild the whole system. We publish a lot about how people’s successes at the community level lay the groundwork for a whole new system that’s very interesting and very practical and very American, but also very democratically owned.
As for big industry, we should remember that 20 years ago when the Great Recession hit they nationalized General Motors and Chrysler and one of the biggest insurance companies in the world. (People should understand that insurance companies have a huge amount of money coming in that they invest—in fact, some insurance companies do far more investing than big banks do.) But several years after the taxpayers bailed those companies out, they re-privatized these companies.
We think that it’s highly likely that further crisis moments like the Great Recession will come, since we’ve seen a lot of deregulation and—as a result—speculative investments. And we hope that quasi-public solutions will arise in response to any future crises: regionally owned banks, neighborhood businesses, community-owned businesses, and maybe even some nationalizations.
I’m a historian as well as a political economist, so I think like a historian, and so I view these projects as the pre-history of the next big move—remember that virtually everything Roosevelt did in the New Deal in the 1930s was forecast 20 years beforehand in experiments at the state and local level.
3) I interviewed Bob McChesney, and he said something similar in the realm of media—he said that you first build local progressive media, and then alliances will form, and then progressive media will emerge on the national stage.
You’ll be surprised how a really interesting project that you do in your community will ramify—other communities will say: “Hey, do you know what they were doing over here? If they can do it, we can do it!”
And that’s exactly what happens with worker-owned companies and land trusts and cooperatives—local things spread like wildfire if you do them really well in one community.
So I want to encourage anyone reading this to take the local level seriously and pursue the exciting possibilities at the local level.
4) What are the main ideas in your 2004 book America Beyond Capitalism? Noam Chomsky called the book “marvelous”, and commented that he recommends the book “all the time”. And Chomsky made this remark about the book: “This challenging work succeeds in a task that may seem almost utopian in dark times suffused by anger, hopelessness, and despair: to provide concrete and feasible ways to reverse the ominous course of the past several decades and to open the way to a vibrant democracy with a sustainable economy that can satisfy human needs, not least the need to control one’s work and life. It is an impressive achievement that should inspire thought and constructive action.”
The main theme is exactly what we’ve just discussed—there were projects at the state and local level that forecasted what would happen at the national level with the New Deal, so these state and local “laboratories of democracy” give rise to what happens at the national level, and these local experiments help with community development but also build the constituencies and ideas that allow you to talk about much larger things.
5) Your discussion of the “laboratories of democracy” reminds me of the incredible story of Chattanooga’s internet—Chattanooga’s fast and cheap internet apparently rejuvenated business in Chattanooga because businesses wanted to use that sweet internet, and all of that must terrify the telecom giants.
That’s useful—there are municipal networks in 100s of communities around the country, and there’s research that indicates that community-owned fiber networks offer low, stable, and transparent prices.
6) How much work have you done in the Rust Belt?
We’ve done a lot of work in Youngstown—a steel mill there was being shut down and steelworkers made a big effort to take over the steel mill and turn it into a worker- and community-owned steel mill. The effort failed because the government ultimately backed off from the financing they’d promised.
But it didn’t fail in a different sense—it dramatized the idea of community- and worker-ownership, and it catalyzed and inspired projects about community- and worker-ownership in many parts of the country and particularly in Ohio.
7) There’s an interesting quote from Chomsky: “Spain and other European countries are hoping to get U.S. taxpayer funding for the high-speed rail and related infrastructure that is badly needed in the United States. At the same time, Washington is busy dismantling leading sectors of U.S. industry, ruining the lives of the workforce and communities. It is difficult to conjure up a more damning indictment of the economic system that has been constructed by state-corporate managers. Surely the auto industry could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs, using its highly skilled workforce—and what the world needs, and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major catastrophe.”
Yeah, and even when these projects fail they build up the idea that these things are practical and that these things are legitimate and that these things aren’t crazy, and that means that when the next crisis hits there’s much more opportunity for success because those ideas are around.
8) How much has Sanders truly embraced institutional change?
Sanders is mixed—he’s been very strong on worker-owned cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, and he’s talked about public banking and land trusts.
Sanders as mayor of Burlington did a lot of very practical and very repeatable stuff like land trusts and community utilities and community healthcare, but I haven’t seen his latest legislative proposals, and I don’t think that he focuses enough on building from the bottom.
But like I said, we need to develop things on the ground and build up the ideas—ideas spread like wildfire when there are real examples to point to, and that’s how things really change.
If it’s practical, you should be able to demonstrate it. If it isn’t practical, you shouldn’t do it.
9) But if something breaks through on the national stage then can’t that have a top-down effect too?
Absolutely—that’s the kind of thing that can happen with national leadership.
But usually national leadership needs to see some workable examples on the ground first.
10) Are you happy or disappointed with America’s trajectory since your 2004 book?
You have to put several decades of your life on the table to play the “change the system” game—those are the chips that you have to put on the table in order to get into this poker game.
People are often impatient because they don’t see immediate large-scale changes, but you have to build things for decades, and then those things will begin to explode if you’ve done your work well.
Think of the civil rights movement—the civil rights work started 100 years before the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s.
And it’s the same with the feminist movement—there was a long, long period of developmental work before the explosion of change happened.
11) What are the main ideas in the 2008 book Unjust Deserts that you co-wrote with Lew Daly? Chomsky praised this book as well: “This deeply informed and carefully argued study of the social and historical factors that enter into creative achievement formulates issues of entitlement in ways that have far-reaching implications for a just social order. It merits careful study and reflection, and should be a call for constructive action.” The idea of the rich not deserving their wealth reminds me of Dean Baker’s comment about elite ideology: “These people do not want to entertain the idea that they didn’t end up as big winners through a combination of skill, hard work, and perhaps a dose of good luck. Even the progressives in this group, who support redistributive tax and transfer policy, would rather see this as an expression of their generosity than a refusal to take part in theft.…This is a direction that many, perhaps most, elite types would rather not go. They might be open to coughing up more money in taxes to reduce inequality and provide opportunities for the poor, but they are not open to the idea that they never should have had the money in the first place.”
People often say: “Well, the rich make a lot of profits from other people’s work, and so why shouldn’t the public get a lot of that back through taxes or worker cooperatives or state-owned businesses.” And that’s a strong argument.
But our book takes up a deeper argument, which is that the current economy’s real source of income and wealth is historical investment—the modern economy’s foundation is 100s of years of training and intellectual development and physical development, and that development came from the taxes that were invested to educate the workforce and the labor that was invested to build the physical infrastructure and so on. And most of this historical investment was public investment.
So from that perspective you don’t have a situation where some businessman made a lot of money because he was smart—you instead have a situation where the businessman skims the cream off the top of that huge historical investment and then says: “Look how smart I am.”
But the payoff should go back to the society that overwhelmingly paid for and overwhelmingly created the foundations for today’s income and wealth.
12) You can see this point very clearly when you look at the Third World—how would any of these fancy billionaires have grown their businesses in the Third World where they don’t have any infrastructure?
Exactly—someone like Bill Gates would’ve gotten absolutely nowhere in the Third World where they don’t have the training and everything else. And Gates also relied on centuries of historical public investment in: mathematics; training in mathematics; science; training in science; technology; training in technology; and so on. So Gates and others skim the cream off the top of centuries of investment.
13) What are the main ideas in your 2013 book What Then Must We Do?
That book points to the crisis developments of the Great Recession—like the nationalizations that I mentioned before—and also to the many, many examples all around the country of neighborhood- and community- and worker-ownership that were going on just under the radar.
The book suggests that people should build from the bottom up in order to create things like local co-ops and municipal electric utilities and local cable television and also in order to lay the groundwork for larger changes ahead.
14) How much does all of this bottom-up experimentation cut across ideological boundaries?
Sometimes—you can often find interesting political coalitions at the local level.
15) I think that you can find a lot of younger conservatives who have surprisingly progressive views.
Yes—people often forget about cross-ideological coalitions. Some who would call themselves “conservative” are very open to localist ideas of this kind—we’ve seen some alliances form. I’ve worked together with creative conservatives who’re very much sympathetic to decentralized ownership and decentralized control and worker ownership—decentralized decision-making is a very strong thing and isn’t anathema to some conservatives.
16) What do you think about David Ellerman’s work? Ellerman’s new book Neo-Abolitionism is fascinating. Chomsky holds Ellerman’s work in high regard. Like you, Ellerman critiques institutional structures.
I’m very sympathetic to Ellerman and to Ellerman’s argument in his new book.
Ellerman wants us all to get the fruits of our labor, and I agree with that, but the piece that’s often left out is: Who owns the fruits of historical investment in training and knowledge and technology and physical infrastructure? If you took away all of that, the fruits of your labor would be whatever potatoes you could grow in the ground or whatever, since there’d be no technology or anything.
So instead of a situation where corporate power—and ultimately private wealth, typically—skims off the cream, there ought to be an equitable distribution of the benefits of centuries of public investment.
17) You talk about people’s ability to capture the fruits of public investment—Dean Baker makes the point that the minimum wage in the US should be $26 today: “Think of what the country would look like if the lowest paying jobs, think of dishwashers or custodians, paid $26 an hour. That would mean someone who worked a 2000 hour year would have an annual income of $52,000. This income would put a single mother with two kids at well over twice the poverty level.” So it’s all a matter of which socioeconomic group has the political power that allows them to capture the benefits of productivity growth.
18) What activist groups can people join in order to make a difference on the issues that we’ve discussed in this interview?
Almost all local activist groups are open to this kind of work.
But success in this kind of work requires people who really want to innovate in the economic realm—people who just want to focus on political stuff won’t be good at this work.
19) Do you recommend any particular activist organizations that people can join?
There’s an enormous amount going on around the country—you can look at our website and other organizations’ websites and see tons of things that people are actually doing and that you could also do in your community.
I see lots of local developmental things, and there’s informal cooperation—I don’t see it as an organized national effort yet, but I think you’ll see national organizational efforts in the future.
And how it really works is how the women’s movement worked in the 1960s—six friends get together and get some pizza and some beer. And you look at some websites and say: “What’s being done in other neighborhoods and other communities that the six of us could actually start right here?” And you begin to figure out what you could do: “If they’re doing it there, why can’t we do it here?” And then something happens, and then it’s not abstract anymore.
That’s how things actually happen—Bob Moses recently died and there’s a case where a whole movement eventually came out of the fact that half a dozen SNCC people got together and said: “Let’s do something.”
20) Chomsky points out that a small success like a traffic light can make you no longer feel apathetic: “Every organizer knows how to deal with this. What you find when you go to a community is that everyone feels hopeless. Then, you find some feasible task. I’ll give you a real case. There was a neighborhood of downtrodden immigrants. A group of mothers were organized to get a traffic light at a dangerous intersection to make things safer for their children. They were willing to try, and they succeeded. So, they realized there are things they can do. That’s organizing.” So you see that you succeeded and then the success emboldens you.
Exactly—instead of ranting and raving and complaining, get together with some friends and do something.
21) Is there now a situation where friends don’t get together and get pizza and beer anymore, since people just sit at home on the internet now?
I’m interested in all of the community activists and community organizers who get out there and do things—I don’t waste time bemoaning the isolated people.
22) How can worker cooperatives compete with Amazon, given how cheap and convenient Amazon is and given how good Amazon’s customer service is?
You wouldn’t take on Amazon right away—you might want to start with local housing, local food distribution, local banks, local utilities, local land ownership, and the local healthcare system.
Once you build up a base, you can start to go after the larger guys.
23) I like the idea of painting concrete images—for example, you should say this to Americans if you want to sell Medicare for All on the national stage: “Imagine going to the hospital and taking out your blue M4A card, and you show it to them, and there’s no payment or anything—imagine what it would be like to do that. And what it would be like to not have to go through all of these stupid medical bills at the kitchen table, so that you can read your kids a bedtime story instead of dealing with these stupid medical bills.” So what are some concrete images when it comes to activism?
Well, the concrete image is what I said before. You sit down with some friends with your pizza and beer and you find out what’s going on—instead of wringing your hands and worrying about the state of the world, you look at our website or at other websites and you see what others are doing. And you recognize that everything that you’re looking at started with a group just like the one that you and your friends have just formed. And you say: “If they can do it in those 10 cities, we can probably do it here too.”
It’s not magic—you just decide that you want to find out what’s doable and pursue it. And you’ll be amazed at how much is going on around the country that you could do too.
And that’s how a lot of these things start—there’s nothing abstract about it at all, however critical the larger theoretical issues are.
24) Imagine you walk around in a shopping mall in an alternate world where the institutions have all been democratized—what’s different and what’s not different? Would everything look the same?
There are some really good cooperative stores around the country now, so you can go into these stores and see for yourself what they’re like—there are experiments going on in almost every part of the country.
Compared to normal stores, many of them are much more hospitable, much more oriented toward community concerns, and much more environmentally stable. And these stores have a community feel to them that’s different from normal stores.
In a world where things were democratic, decision-making would be much more participatory in the workplace and in the community—in our world, the person who owns the store says: “Do this or you’re fired.” So that would be a radical change.
And income distribution would be the other radical change. Imagine a world where a family of two parents and two kids makes over $100,000 per year working only 20 hours a week—that’s well within the technological possibilities for the whole society. That statistic might sound crazy, but we have a really wealthy system right now, and the issue is that the income distribution is extremely concentrated and a small elite gets the fruits of our society’s technology.
25) Have you gone to Spain and observed Mondragon?
I haven’t gone to Spain, but virtually everybody else on our team has gone many times.
26) If you fly to Spain and observe Mondragon, what’s different and what’s not different?
It’s not community-owned, but it’s a very interesting model and a powerful demonstration of what can be done.
There’s much, much less inequality in the income distribution—the last time I checked I think that it was 6:1 from top to bottom. It’s cooperatively owned, and there’s much greater participation in decision-making. And it’s much more environmentally friendly.
27) How do the Mondragon workers exercise their power? Some people might look at a workplace and say: “In a democratic world, I don’t see what workers could really do to change this place.” There’s a quip about this in an article called “Chomsky’s Economics”: “He apparently thinks each worker should spend an inordinate amount of time placing his or her own personal and artistic stamp on those widgets. (How do you do that with a hammer?)”
An unelected boss doesn’t control everything—you instead have worker councils and participatory decision-making.
There’s usually higher productivity and higher efficiency and different commitments in those situations—people really feel part of things, and really feel like they own things, and really care about things.
There are many routine jobs, and then the question is: How do you distribute those routine jobs fairly? You want to automate boring jobs as much as possible, and you want to spread out the boring jobs so that some people don’t have to do a lot of boring work.
Invention goes upward, not downward—it’s been proven over and over that people on the production line invent all sorts of things, and see things that no manager can see, and come up with a lot of ideas about how to do things better.
28) Should the term “socialism” be dropped, since people with enough imagination to try to change the whole world ought to be able to have enough imagination to come up with a term that hasn’t been incessantly dragged through the mud? David Ellerman gave this comment: “Those who say they seek a new world should at least be able to find a new word.”
[Laughs.] I personally don’t have any strong views on terminology.
29) How far do you think that workplace democracy should go—do you want workers to only have control over minor issues or do you want workers to have control over major issues?
Inherited technology is the big component of the economy—that’s where the big action is. That technological inheritance is collective and communitarian. And that inheritance also belongs to future generations, not just to the current generation that’s sitting there eight hours a day this year. So the economy has to represent the people as a whole.
And you can’t let worker-controlled factories pollute the hell out of the community in order to compete with others, so the community also needs to be able to protect the environment.
30) The quip would be that you only want to let the workers choose which color to paint the walls.
That’s an exaggeration, but it’s fair to say that there’s a very strong balance between the community—its historical and current contributions and its current and future interests—and the current generations of workers.
31) To what extent do you ultimately want community ownership?
I think there’s a role for small community-independent co-ops—and for creative community-independent entrepreneurs who can invent interesting technological breakthroughs.
But the community—including future generations—basically has a controlling interest at the local and regional and national levels, so that’s a big debate to sort out.
I think the big stuff has to go public in some sense—there’s a lot of power that’s attached to business ownership, so at some point you find that you can’t regulate businesses very well, since the businesses take over the regulators. And making things public isn’t a perfect solution either, but at least you can shed light on things and get accountability, since the public has access to the books.
But it’s a complex balancing—I’ve written about the “pluralist commonwealth” where you have plural forms of ownership.
32) How does one make the case that the residentially based communities like towns and cities have some unique moral standing—or unique moral legitimacy, or unique moral authority—that other communities lack? There are many communities: communities of work, communities of faith, communities of hobbies (like birdwatching), and so on. I assume that we wouldn’t say that the residentially based community somehow gains unique moral standing because the residentially based community happens to have police power or the power of force, since that wouldn’t make sense.
I wouldn’t rest it on police power at all.
You have to ask: What does a nation or a state or a city own collectively as a polity? And I think the fruits of inherited technology should fall into that category, since it seems to me irrational and inequitable and too narrow to just allow rich guys—or the current generation of workers—to get those fruits.
But there needs to be a lot of experimentation—you need to work out new and innovative and more-complex ways for both communities and workers to own things.
I think that the residentially based community is important because it includes everyone in a particular nation or state or region or whatever—it says: “Everybody here is part of this.” And “everybody” means that it’s not only about the workers who have a stake in their company.