Gar Alperovitz Asks “What Then Must We Do?

A year and a half ago when we spoke to Gar Alperovitz for our Braintrust series on thought leaders who have most influenced us at Capital Institute, he began the conversation by asking, “If you are not a fan of either socialism or corporate capitalism, what are your alternatives and how do you get there?”  Gar’s new book, What Then Must We Do? and his film, The Next American Revolution, go a long, thought-provoking way toward answering those vexing questions.

Gar Alperovitz: The Next American Revolution (TRAILER) from Democracy Collaborative on Vimeo.

In both his book and his film, Gar explores four broad, alternative strategies that he believes are moving America slowly but inexorably—and, for the most part, under the radar of both mainstream media and policy-makers—toward the structural transformations required at this critical juncture in our political and economic history. The first, which Gar calls evolutionary reconstruction (to distinguish it from both reform and from revolution), includes changes occurring  at the local level that have been catalyzed by some combination of community dysfunction and frustration with numerous failed attempts to deal with that dysfunction. These are cooperative enterprises (including the celebrated Evergreen Cooperatives, the subject of Capital Institute’s second Field Guide study), land trusts, social enterprises, B-Corps, and new forms of agriculture, from rural to urban. The use of anchor institution contracts to create stability and an infusion of wealth in low-income neighborhoods–a key strategy of the Evergreen model–is also being replicated in many communities around the nation.

A second form of change, what Gar calls a “checkerboard” of strategies being implemented by municipalities and states across the country, include land development, public ownership of electrical generation (including methane capture), and, yes, even the investment of oil revenues on behalf of the public in the anything-but-progressive state of Alaska. Gar also includes in this category the growing, strong pushback by local governments when corporations demand subsidies and other incentives to relocate to, or remain in, a community.

The third form of change, “crisis-related transformative possibility,” comes in two variations, Gar explains. The first is the response to the slow building up of discontent with the rising cost of private services upon which the public depends, for example, the high-cost of private health care. These pressures are moving us toward more public interventions as long-term solutions, he notes.  The second variation of crisis-related responses is occurring as we recognize that regulatory reform has failed, and will continue to fail, to address the deep flaws in the functioning  of our financial system. The renewed interest in state banks, credit unions, and the grassroots “move your money” movement are evidence of this crisis response. (If government ownership of the banking system sounds like a radical proposition, Gar highlights the little-known fact that in the depths of the Great Depression a group of Chicago School conservative economists advanced a plan “that called for outright ownership of Federal Reserve Banks, the nationalization of money creation, and the transformation of banks into highly restricted savings-and-loan-like institutions.”!)

The fourth kind of change—“big crisis-related transformative strategies,” Gar calls them—include the intervention opportunities presented by government “crisis” takeovers of corporations (for example, the takeovers of General Motors and Chrysler Corporation). In the future, these opportunities are likely to occur again, “with a different long-term result,” Gar hopes. “Did we have to give [GM] back? “ he asks. “Consider what might have happened if the government and the UAW had used the General Motors stock they received because of the bailout to reorganize the company along full or joint public/worker ownership lines and the new quasi public GM product line were linked to a serious plan both to develop the nations mass transit and rail system and to target jobs to economically distressed cities.” As Gar points out, there are currently no US-owned subway car or high-speed rail manufacturers.

What Then Must We Do and The Next American Revolution expose the systemic breakdowns of our American (and global) economy and the frightening places these structural defects will ultimately take us in the absence of transformative interventions.  But both the book and the film are ultimately a celebration of American inventiveness and resilience. Gar invites us to take a closer look at the remarkable life-enhancing engines of change operating all around us, as they quietly displace our crumbling, old economic order.—Susan Arterian Chang is the Director of Capital Institute’s Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy initiative.