(This article first appeared in the January/February 2006 Issue of Mother Jones)
Illustration: Philippe Weisbecker
Beyond the remains of yesterday’s politics, the change you’re looking for has already begun.
by Gar Alperovitz
Where is America headed? It’s not hard to find pessimists. Author and former Nixon adviser Kevin Phillips believes the nation is dominated by a new “plutocracy” in which wealth reaches “beyond its own realm” to control government at all levels. The writer Robert Kaplan predicts that our society could soon “resemble the oligarchies of ancient Athens and Sparta.” Sociologist Bertram Gross has predicted a “friendly fascism.” Imagine what another 9/11 would do.
It’s also not hard to find optimists. Bush is in trouble, the GOP is struggling to recruit candidates in many races, and liberals are beginning to smell blood. After all, if 70,000 votes had gone the other way in Ohio—and if voters hadn’t been forced to wait in line for endless hours–we might have a Democrat in the White House right now. The Dean campaign, America Coming Together, MoveOn, Wellstone Action, and many other efforts show new energies beneath the surface. The Iraq war is becoming increasingly unpopular. The pendulum will surely swing.
My own view is that both these judgments are almost certainly wrong. Both assume that the crisis we face is a politicalone, pure and simple. But what if it is something different? There are reasons to believe we are entering what can only be called a systemic crisis. And the emerging possibilities are not easily described by the conventional wisdom of either left or right.
The institutional power arrangements that have set the terms of reference for the American political-economic system over roughly the last half century are dissolving before our eyes–especially those that once constrained corporate economic and political power. First, organized labor’s capacity to check the giant corporation, both on the shop floor and in national politics, has all but disappeared as union membership has collapsed from 35 percent of the labor force in the mid-1950s to a mere 7.9 percent in the private sector today. Throughout the world, at the heart of virtually every major progressive political movement has been a powerful labor movement. Liberalism in general, and the welfare state in particular, would have been impossible without union money and
organizing. can you get viagra at walmart