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Gar Alperovitz describes a model that challenges private monopoly ownership without a powerful bureaucratic state

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. One of the things that’s become rather clear to everybody if it wasn’t clear to them before: concentration of ownership leads to concentration of political power. And we’ve seen that rather clearly when it comes to Wall Street and any attempts to regulate. It even comes to regulate derivatives, or even something as straightforward as position limits in the commodities markets, to bigger issues of the economy, for example the way wages have been so stagnant since the 1970s. This all comes down to the issue of power, who gets to pass laws. And, of course, power comes from economic power. So there is a model that’s been envisioned and, more recently, clearly articulated about how to decentralize some of that economic power, at least, and it’s in a new book written by Gar Alperovitz, and the name of the book is America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy. And Gar now joins us from our downtown studio in Washington. Thanks for joining us, Gar.


JAY: So there’s been this dilemma sort of throughout the whole 20th century, but certainly looking back on the 20th century, that concentration of ownership in capitalism leads not just to a disproportionate sharing of income to the top 1 percentile, but a disproportionate share of political power and to deep economic crisis, which in the 20th century at least a couple of times led to wars. On the other hand, the alternative that the 20th century seemed to give rise to, that kind of socialism we saw there, gave rise to a different kind of concentration of ownership and a different kind of concentration of power, but again led to centralized state bureaucracies and a loss of democratic rights. So that’s sort of the question the 20th century handed off to the 21st. So you start to grapple with some of this in your book. Why don’t you tell us what that’s about?

ALPEROVITZ: Well, that’s exactly the point. But the–you know, in the United States, the top 1 percent has 60 percent of the capital. It’s a medieval number, 60 percent by 1 percent. That’s where the power is. So power in any system is who owns the capital. And if it isn’t going to be state ownership with a highly concentrated form and if it isn’t corporate ownership, the alternative is a radical decentralization–co-ops, worker owned companies, community ownership, municipal ownership early in the 20th century, regional ownership, building up to some national ownership, some public enterprise, a vision that is as centralized as you can get it and still run an economy. That’s the larger framework. But the really interesting thing is, if you look below the surface, there is an enormous amount developing that points in that direction, which, if we give it political oomph, just possibly might begin to sketch out a real model rather than a theoretical model.

JAY: Well, I guess if you go back to Marx and Engels, which people don’t like to talk about too much, although I guess it’s getting back a little bit into fashion, they always saw socialism as something actual being given birth to by capitalism. It wasn’t just some nice high model in their heads that they thought could be imposed.

ALPEROVITZ: Exactly. And indeed they saw the co-op movement at different points as part of that, or municipal structures. Marx, in fact, [incompr.] occasionally said in the United States and Britain it would grow up that way without the classic revolution. People often ignore that part. But what’s really interesting: it’s very American. It doesn’t come out of the Marxist tradition. There are 130 million Americans–130 million–in co-ops or in credit unions today. And they’re talking that prose, but they’re not actually activating as much as they could with the power that gives them. Or another 13 million people involved in one or another kind of worker ownership. Press doesn’t cover it at all, but there they are on the ground, developing right here in America. And largely, I think, because the pain levels are growing, I think we’re going to see more of this. And the really interesting question is when people, on the one hand, begin moving politically with it, and on the other hand, begin developing a sketch, a vision of a decentralized–but also in some areas, obviously, centralized–a system that is as decentralized as possible in the democratization of wealth. That’s what America Beyond Capitalism, that’s what the book’s about.

JAY: So I guess the idea is if you have diversified forms of public ownership at municipal, state, co-ops, nonprofits, that you–by decentralizing economic power, you have more democracy.

ALPEROVITZ: Exactly, and decentralizing in a variety of ways. Again, on the ground, people don’t realize it, but 25 percent of American electricity currently, today, is in public utilities or co-ops, decentralized as you see it. That doesn’t exclude having to do nationalization. I think when the next big banking crisis comes, some of those banks are going to be taken over. And we–indeed, we did nationalize two big auto companies, so there are central issues as well. But starting at the bottom, I think, is really the critical way, because you build democracy up rather than hoping if it’s concentrated it’ll come back down.

JAY: What are some other examples of what’s happening now?

ALPEROVITZ: Well, the land trusts are a very common example that is either local or city or nonprofit ownership of land to prevent gentrification and prevent speculative profits. That’s all over the country, and again very little attention. There’s a great model in Cleveland that’s developed, really, out of the long history of worker ownership in Ohio. In a very poor neighborhood, there are six–there are three major–but there are six on the books–kind of worker co-ops in a very poor neighborhood, but they’re large co-ops, that is to say, [incompr.] large-scale industrial laundry, a solar installation company. These are worker co-ops linked together. The solar installation is on line to produce more solar installation than exist throughout the state of Ohio already. It’s a big deal. And there’s a green kind of place where you can grow–in the winter you can grow vegetables and lettuce, and sort of greenhouse, but solar and hydroponic greenhouse. But, again, not small-scale: 3 million heads of lettuce, and linked to the purchasing power of nonprofit institutions like hospitals and universities to give it stability and to build the community, and not just to make a few people rich, but to build up that community. These are linked together as a community building effort. But if you actually look underneath the surface, there’s a lot going on around the country that the press simply doesn’t cover, and gives you a sense of if it can be done in Cleveland, it can be done anywhere. That’s a really devastated city.

JAY: Now, the issue, to a large extent, still will come back to who holds political power. Like, you talk about the nationalization that took place of the auto industry, but it was nationalized in a way that essentially handed things back to the private shareholders of those companies, to especially the bondholders of those companies, and they’re back to just making cars again instead of what a lot of people were asking for was if you’re going to essentially use public money, then use this to create a new green economy, and something Obama campaigned on but seems to have given up on. Same thing goes with banking. You can have, like, what amounts to nationalization of AIG, the big insurance company, you could have used that in order to create a sort of public mandate for AIG, insuring small business loans or whatever, except this nationalization is just another one that’s good for Wall Street.

ALPEROVITZ: Absolutely. What you get in illustration there is in a crisis you can take them over. We’ve done it, in fact, large taxpayer money, and then bail them out and give them back at great subsidies once they’re profitable. If there’s power built from the bottom up over time–you know, my heroes are the civil rights workers in the 1940s laying that groundwork step-by-step, so when you got to the ’60s you could have real power. If you do that kind of work, then when those takeovers take place, they can move in a very different direction. So I’m a bottom-up guy, but building, ultimately, the kind of power, slowly and steadily, that can actually deal with the national level in the right way as well.

JAY: Or even political power at the municipal and state levels. I mean, just getting a big co-op alone doesn’t seem to change things. Like, if you look in Spain where they have Mondragon, the big workers co-op there, I think it’s one of the–in the top ten biggest companies in Spain, at least in terms of asset turnover. It’s–I think, employs over 83,000 people. I think it’s the biggest business in the Basque region, and it’s a workers co-op, one worker, one vote. But I don’t know that they’ve really changed the complexion of the politics of the political power of Spain that much. So doesn’t there need to be some political-electoral, probably, strategy for actually taking power at one level or the other combined with this economic strategy?

ALPEROVITZ: That’s–you said it as well as I could. I think co-ops without a political argument and without a political build-up and without a clear vision of what you’re trying to do–. Mondragon is built up to get jobs for the Basque people. It hasn’t got a political agenda to change Spain or change the system. It’s an attempt simply to produce jobs in a very interesting co-op. But what you’ve said is exactly the argument of America Beyond Capitalism. You cannot just do these things in isolation. They have to be part of a movement that understands where it’s going, and not simply to build co-ops, that we’re laying groundwork for a larger, systemic transformation. So ideas are important. And I think–you know, I’m a writer and a historian and political economist. I write about ideas. I don’t think they matter much in history except sometimes. And I think this is the time when putting together a new vision, the ideas and the institutions, co-ops, worker-owned companies, municipal ownership, laying groundwork, several-decade developmental process, but a direction of where we’re going. If you don’t–as you put it at the outset, if you don’t like state socialism and if you don’t like traditional corporate capitalism, you’ve got to come up with a clear understanding. And it’s time we debate what that means and what the past might be, both in terms of institutions and the politics that go with it from the bottom up.

JAY: And I guess the critical issue here is that it’s not enough just to fight against what’s wrong with this stage of capitalism, but people need something to fight for, and this is sort of a grounded vision you’re suggesting of what people can fight for.

ALPEROVITZ: That’s exactly it. That’s why I wrote America Beyond Capitalism. And if this had–obviously, this hasn’t got all the answers, but my hope was that this book might help crystallize that, just what you said: how do we talk about a grounded vision that actually allows us to debate a democratic understanding and a path in the growing pain that’s forcing people, really forcing them to say, look, something fundamental is wrong, which mean people are open to answers at this time if we’ve got intelligent answers that are also–have a real foot in reality, the development of real projects, and a foot in a serious politics? I mean, that’s the goal, laying that down, opening a debate, and beginning to say there is another direction, we don’t have to be stuck with corporate capitalism versus a highly statist socialism. There may be a place that’s in some ways very, very American in its decentralist vision, which is part of the American vision in general.

JAY: And at some point–I mean, not at some point, right from early on, I guess, in terms of how it’s envisioned, but this has to wrest economic and political power out of the hands of 1 percent. It’s not like this is just going to be some nice, easy let’s build some co-ops.

ALPEROVITZ: Absolutely. I mean, that’s the whole point. But the question is when that big fight takes place and how, and whether it takes place locally and nationally. At this point what is happening is that the kind of ends of the internal empire, the Detroits and the Clevelands, where all the pain is, where the pain is, people are developing a new model, a new vision. That doesn’t mean that that’s going to go without conflict. That’s–I agree with you entirely. But what we first need to go–decide where is it we’re going, and simultaneously open a political attack. I think that’s what Wall Street helped us do, Occupy Wall Street. They’ve begun to say, hey, there is something wrong, and challenging the top 1 percent. This is a fight at many, many levels. But the piece that is obviously missing is: what is it that we’re going for if it doesn’t want to go in the direction of the two standard models?

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gar.

ALPEROVITZ: Appreciated. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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