Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Review: What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz

There are deep problems in the American socio-economic environment that are currently going unaddressed by the political system.  Any astute observer of current events is very familiar with them: corporate control of the political system, increasing economic inequality, environmental degradation, stagnating or declining real wages for the majority of the population, unsustainable increases in personal debt and working hours and health care costs, growing individual alienation, etc.  How can progressives stop and, indeed, reverse these negative trends?

Gar Alperovitz casts his hat into this ring with his new, short (less than 200 pages) book What Then Must We Do?  Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.  This work follows in the tradition of his previous efforts, as he notes in the Afterword, such as America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy.  What follows in the next several paragraphs is a summary of the book's main argument.

The two eras of modern progressive change in America were the post-Great Depression New Deal age and the post-World War II welfare reformism age.  Neither of these, Alperovitz contends, is similar to our present historical moment.  

First of all, a Depression-style economic collapse is unlikely for several reasons.  The size of government spending is 30-35% of GDP, as opposed to many times less before the Depression (which is less prone to dramatic fluctuation); stabilizers such as food stamps provide a floor for many individuals; there exists more contemporary knowledge about how economics works; the population now holds government accountable for a well-performing economy; and most importantly, political leaders (as they did in 2008) will act to avoid a catastrophic economic collapse.  It seems much more likely that the economy will continue to limp along in an Endless Crisis style stagnation of mature capitalism, punctuated by crises.

Secondly, a post-World War II style situation is also unlikely because the advent of nuclear weapons makes large-scale state conflict unlikely.  That, in turn, means that the large-scale economic stimulus and social changes (black population migration and employment, increasing numbers of women in industry, welfare and economic and technological programs that grew out of wartime arrangements -- GI Bill, etc.) are also unlikely.  Military spending is currently 5% of GDP and declining.  

Large progressive Keynesian spending outside of a military context seems implausible given the stranglehold of corporate America, which has little short-term interest in such spending, on the political system.  Tax-and-redistribute strategies also seem set up for failure: "Tax-raising strategies have also often been self-limiting, and they tend to help groups trying to bolster the status quo drum up taxpayer anger to support their side."

Furthermore, both of these progressive historical periods exhibited strong labor union activity.  In other countries where within-the-system change is possible, too, unionization rates are much higher.  In America, however, unionization rates are low and declining.  Therefore the reformist route to progressive change does not seem promising.  Besides, reformist changes to programs that recently have been "won" are usually slight modifications to long-established systems -- "Obamacare" being a case in point.

"The old way of proceeding is now coming slowly but steadily to an end," Alperovitz proclaims -- an alternative strategy must be found.  So, what then must we do?

Alperovitz notes that "For the most part political-economic systems are largely defined by the way property is owned and controlled... It tends to produce political as well as economic power."  Logically, he reasons that a future system must democratize ownership of various parts of the society in order to exhibit democratic political tendencies.

Alperovitz advocates a heterogeneous approach to socio-economic transformation.  He identifies "evolutionary reconstruction," "checkerboard strategies" and "crisis transformations" as the means to achieve the eventual a vision, a "pluralist commonwealth."

By "evolutionary reconstruction," Alperovitz means rebuilding the existing institutions of society along more democratic lines.  He notes that many such structures already exist -- credit unions, co-ops, land trusts, public utilities, etc. -- and will increasingly be welcomed as options as the existing ways of doing business continue to fail the American public.  Alperovitz writes, "I have termed change of this kind evolutionary reconstruction to distinguish it from reform, on the one hand, and revolution on the other."

Checkerboard strategies mean, in Alperovitz's words, "The game of politics out there is not monolithic.  It actually involves lots of different squares on the board -- some of which are blocked but others of which... may be open for doing something interesting.  It also suggests that there may be a longer-term strategic option on the board."  He cites many examples of policies (too many to list here), such as using the purchasing power of local schools and hospitals to stabilize local economies.

"Crisis transformations" refers to using a reverse Shock Doctrine strategy to assert public control over important sectors of the economy when their flagship institutions fail spectacularly.  Alperovitz cites banking and health care as two verticals that seem ripe for this strategy in the not too distant future.  He observes that the national takeover of General Motors is a precedent (although flawed) for such an event.  Alperovitz emphasizes that a strategic outlook is key: "Evolutionary reconstructive change... and temporary and occasional crisis transformations... might become strategic political ideas rather than random developments and events."

Alperovitz is careful to lace qualifiers throughout the book that the comprehensive vision he is offering is preliminary: "Many of the big issues... can't be handled in any other way than what is best termed informed speculation."  Nevertheless, he does see inevitable change on the horizon: "I am cautious about predictions of inevitability -- including the assumed inevitability, dictated from on high, that nothing fundamental can ever change."

Personally, I find Alperovitz's framing of the present historical moment compelling, and his explanation of why other routes to change will fail convincing, but I remain a bit skeptical about his prescriptions for progressive transformation.  

First of all, it seems that corporations are increasingly looking to more local governments in order to assert their authority.  Noam Chomsky has expressed a concern that weakening the power of the federal government plays into the hands of corporations, who find it much easier to bully smaller state and local administrations.  In this light, increasing decentralization as a strategy seems questionable.

Second, Alperovitz proposes crisis transformations as a means of democratizing firms and industries that happen to be in crisis, but what about the commanding heights of industry that are about to imminently fail; how is the public to assert control over those (telecommunications, energy extraction, etc.)?  The less of a strategy that the public has to seize these means of production, the more that a movement based around co-ops will become, in Rosa Luxemburg's words, an attack on "twigs of the capitalist tree."

Third, some passages in the book raise the question of what transformation, exactly, Alperovitz has in mind.  In one passage he remarks, "Small local businesses and many medium-sized firms, especially high-tech businesses, are critical to the future of any serious economy."  So, for instance, are Silicon Valley startups part of this transformation process?  What role will they play?

Alperovitz will be appearing to present his book at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley on Thursday, April 25th at 7:30pm.

Update I had the chance to ask Gar some questions at the above-mentioned appearance (albeit in the brief, imperfect, and indirect way that a moderated Q+A and book signing provides).  With regard to the commanding heights criticism, he remarked that "You wouldn't want to get to the commanding heights if you didn't know what to do with them."  He emphasized that the democratic transformation of the economy would be bottom up, with the major industries the last to go.  With regard to Silicon Valley, he opined that the technology industry in the Bay Area would probably be the last to go co-op since capitalism is working out so (relatively) well for those companies.  The democratic transformation Gar proposes is being embraced by communities who really see no other way out of their economic plight -- that is, they are the communities which capitalism has failed.

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