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Gar Alperovitz is the author of What Then Must We Do?, America Beyond Capitalism, and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and an advocate for a new, community-sustaining economy.

The Cooperative Economy: A Conversation with Gar Alperovitz

Published in the May/June & July/August 2014 issue of Orion magazine

IN THE MID-1960s, when author, historian, and political economist Gar Alperovitz was working as legislative director for Senator Gaylord Nelson, change was in the air. Ink had dried on an early version of the Clean Air Act, the civil rights movement had won major victories, and the first Earth Day was in the works. The U.S. still faced plenty of serious challenges, but many Americans felt their country was capable of dealing with them successfully.

Today, things feel very different. “From climate change to a medieval level of wealth disparity, what we face in this country is no longer a regulatory crisis,” says Alperovitz. “We face a systemic crisis. And if you begin there, you begin to wonder: Is capitalism itself in profound trouble?”

Alperovitz believes it is. The author of several books on the subject, including America Beyond Capitalism, and a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, he points to capitalism’s increasing dysfunction as the impetus for the rise of another economy, one built from the ground up by democratically owned organizations like cooperatives, community land trusts, and municipal institutions.

Orion editor Scott Gast spoke with Alperovitz after the publication of his most recent book, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, which explores whether the cooperative economy can provide the seeds for a system that isn’t capitalism and isn’t socialism, but something entirely new.

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SCOTT GAST: You’ve been thinking, writing, and speaking about alternatives to capitalism for a long time. Where did your interest in cooperatives begin?

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Growth for growth’s sake will kill us all: Moral and ecological truths are challenging economic doctrines

Originally published on Al Jazeera America

One economic fact is held to be self-evident: that the future well-being of the United States requires economic growth — preferably, as much of it as we can muster. Despite wildly divergent policy recommendations, this basic assumption is made clear and explicit by everyone from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth to the left-leaning Center for American Progress. In the boardroom of the Federal Reserve, at the negotiating table for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and on the shale fields of North Dakota, our national economic policy is built on the unshakable conviction that the only way to grow the middle class is to grow the economy — by any means necessary.

Aside from the fact that the top 1 percent has taken most of the gains of growth, leaving the rest of society in virtual stalemate for three decades, there is a profound problem with this solution. Indeed, it’s time to face an ecological truth that makes the traditional assumption increasingly untenable, as unpopular and difficult as this conclusion might be: Growth isn’t always possible. Nor is it necessarily desirable.

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In conversation with Michael Albert

An abridged version of the following conversation with Michael Albert, developer with Robin Hahnel of  the participatory economics model or “Parecon” appeared on Truthout.

MICHAEL ALBERT: Participatory economics proposes a small set of institutions that define the heart of a new type of economy. These institutions are conceived to further various values: self-management, solidarity, diversity, ecological sanity. The idea is that as you carry out economic activities—in other words, as you produce and you allocate and consume—you simultaneously accomplish not only those functions, but by virtue of what the institutions require of us as we operate, you also advance those values.

The basic institutions that are meant to accomplish this are few. There are worker and consumer self-managing councils; where self-management means that people should have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected by them. There is equitable remuneration—referring to the share we get in the economy in the form of income, our claim on the social product. Under participatory economy these are in proportion to how long we work, how hard we work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we work. There is also what’s called balanced job complexes, which is a way of organizing the tasks that we do, so that our work lives, our economic activity and production, has a comparably empowering effect on us all. Finally, there is an allocative system to apportion work, labor and effort—the goods and services we produce—that isn’t a market or central planning but is something we call participatory planning. So in a nutshell, that’s participatory economics (http://zcomm.org/category/topic/parecon/).

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Even though I disagree with many aspects of Michael’s model, what I like about it its rigor and clarity. Parecon is a very tough-minded economic vision and model and it sets a standard for us to look at.

One place to start (with my own work) is that—given the specific historical conditions we face in the United State—I’m primarily interested in the question of how we begin to move in the direction of a model that realizes the kinds of values that Michael just laid out though is different in structure. I am interested in the political economy of institutional power relationships in transition. The question is one of “reconstructive” communities as a cultural, as well as a political fact: how geographic communities are structured to move in the direction of the next vision, along with the question of how a larger system—given the power and cultural relationships—can move towards managing the connections between the developing communities. There are many, many hard questions here—including, obviously, ones related to ecological sustainability and climate change.

I’ve called the model for what this might plausibly look like in practice “the pluralist commonwealth”: commonwealth because it seeks transitionally to restructure political reality by democratizing the ownership of wealth, pluralist because it embraces a variety of institutional approaches towards that end. The model includes some planning, a great deal of decommodification, and partial use of markets in certain areas. It adheres to the principle of subsidiarity, meaning we decentralize as far as possible to the local level where direct democracy is truly possible, but we are also not afraid to look towards institutional forms like regional or national public ownership when the problems are best solved at those scales…

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PluralistCommonwealth.org

Together with my colleagues at the Democracy Collaborative, we have assembled what we hope will be a useful resource for activists, scholars, and policy makers trying to come to terms with the system problem: If we know the system is broken, and we want to move beyond both corporate capitalism and state socialism—how do we clarify the nature of a serious alternative?

Over the last decades, I have tried to sketch an answer—or at least a serious point of departure for defining and refining an answer.  The Pluralist Commonwealth is a system anchored in the reconstruction of communities and the democratization of wealth.  It involves plural forms of cooperative and common ownership, and, following the principle of subsidiarity, begins with decentralization and then moves to higher levels of regional and national coordination, but only when necessary. I invite you to visit the new site now; or keep reading to learn more about what you’ll find there.

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Beyond the Dreamer

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Sojourners

IN THE LAST YEAR of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled with what are best understood as existential challenges as he began to move toward an ever-more-profound and radical understanding of what would be required to deal with the nation’s domestic and international problems.

The direction he was exploring, I believe, is far more relevant to the realities we now face than many have realized—or have wanted to realize.

I first met King in 1964 at the Democratic Party’s national convention held that year in Atlantic City—the occasion of an historic challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to the racially segregated and reactionary Mississippi Democratic Party. I was then a very young aide working for Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.
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