The Institute for Policy Studies’ publication Too Much focuses on inequality and excess. In this interview originally published on February 21, 2016, Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati speaks with Democracy Collaborative co-founder and Next System Project co-chair Gar Alperovitz about his “long-haul perspective on how we can go about shearing inequality down to democratic size:”
Too Much: You see capital — who gets to own it, to benefit from it, and derive political power from it — as a key to both understanding and ending our staggering levels of contemporary. What do you mean by capital?
Alperovitz: In the formulation I use, capital amounts simply to wealth ownership of any kind, ownership that can be translated into power. You can sell it to get income. You can hire people with it. It’s another word for wealth ownership.
Too Much: We’ve become so unequal, you’ve also noted, that we’ll never become significantly more equal unless we have a fundamental shift in who controls capital, in who owns wealth. A shift to what?
Alperovitz: Wealth brings power, political power, institutional power. Wealth on its own gives people the capacity, as a friend of mine likes to say, to “rent” politicians and control the political process. Wealth gives the wealthy access — access to political levers that alter the way the economy works.
Wealth gives the wealthy the capacity to ‘rent’ politicians and control the political process.
In all the advanced countries, labor organizations used to provide a counterbalance to this wealth. On the shop floor and in the political system, unions directly challenged capital on wages and the distribution of income.
But in the United States we’ve always had a much weaker labor movement than most other advanced capitalist nations, and today our labor counterweight is disappearing. Increasingly, we have no institutional counter to the political power of capital.
Many activists today think that building a movement will solve this problem. We obviously need a movement. But at the heart of the movement that helped make America more equal in the middle of the 20th century, we also had an institution, labor unions.
Unless you can build both institutions and a political movement, you won’t have the power and wherewithal to really challenge capital.