Building the New Economy by Peter Heltzel and Bo Eberle

Review: by Gar Alperovitz

What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013

Today in America we are entrenched in a crucible of economic crisis. Economic disparity has created a clear and distinct line between the so-called “99 percent” and the “1 percent,” a situation in which unfathomable amounts of wealth are controlled by mere hundreds of individuals, leaving the hundreds of millions below them with little or no economic and political power.

Now more than ever, we must find ways to oppose what is referred to as “neoliberalism,” an economic state form-ideology that seeks to subsume all human relation into the capitalist market place, making profit and growth the imperative achieved through the exploitation of those who own nothing but their labor.

Gar Alperovitz in his clarion call What Then Must We Do? helps explain how we came to find ourselves in this dire situation and offers a strategy for how to get out it. Between the years of 1945-1970, he writes, we experienced “the most powerful economic boom in modern history.” Our economy grew at a steady rate of 3.05 percent per year, and median family income nearly doubled during that period. Alperovitz draws our attention to the fact that these conditions did not come out of the blue nor were they purely economic. Economists often have trouble historicizing economic trends, content to analyze purely economic factors when trying to analyze economic booms and busts. But Alperovitz insists that this period from ’45-’70 was very unusual by virtue of being preceded by not only the Great Depression, which allowed for the passing of legislation like the New Deal, but also the boom created by the United States’ position of being the primary beneficiary of the Marshall Plan and the lack of serious international competitors during the post-war period.

World War II was pivotal in building the mid-century economy through a militaristic American expansionism. When the soldiers returned home from the battlefield, they got the GI bill that allowed them to go college and put them in a position to buy their first homes (it should be noted that these were primarily white men). Also, women entered the work force to increase family wages and workers put in more hours, birthing the overworked two-income family. While these post-war conditions allowed for certain economic and political advances, they also created powerful institutions, chiefly multinational corporations. The corporatization of American civic and cultural life has created the conditions for the creation of a small elite class of wealthy individuals who have unprecedented institutional power. Given this growing economic inequality, what then must we do?

Evolutionary Reconstruction

In order to courageously confront neoliberal global capitalism, Alperovitz argues that we need to engage in a process he calls “evolutionary reconstruction.” The road that got us here was not comprised of revolutionary moments, specific tax reforms, incentives, or even particular pieces of legislation. Rather, the creation of certain institutions and cultures that fostered particular values and practices that had profound effects. Therefore, Alperovitz proposes the possibility of a “certain longer-term evolutionary institution-building and institution-shifting strategy—one not for the faint of heart or for the short-term, instant gratification folks among us.” Alperovitz calls us to a deliberate long-term strategy of created alternative institutions.

At the beginning of Alperovitz’s book we find a quip uttered by historian Lewis Namier, that we all tend to “remember the future.” Alperovitz explains that this is the phenomenon of “remembering forward that which we unconsciously take for granted.” We assume the world must be a certain way, that there is simply “a way things are.” Philosopher Slavoj Žižek ironically notes the current popularity of apocalyptic points to a deep American malaise. During the summer of 2013 alone, one can point to the fact that almost every blockbuster was about the possible end of the world, energized by the cult of the heroic masculine (e.g.,Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, This is the End, The Wolverine, Olympus has Fallen, White House Down, The World’s End, World War Z, Oblivion, After Earth). And television shows (like the Walking Dead) that depict the end of the world mean that for popular audiences, the end of the world is easier to imagine than an actual end to capitalism, which indeed has us on a collision course with apocalypse. American culture’s obsession with vampires and zombies unveils the way that our collective psyche is dealing with nihilistic existence in our personal and professional lives. In other words, there is a deep sense that we are destroying the world and its end is imminent, but there is simply nothing we can do except brace for it; we cannot imagine fixing the problems. The impoverishment of the apocalyptic imagination cripples our collective activist efforts.

Likewise, Namier’s statement that we “remember the future” is resonant with Gilles Deleuze’s analysis from Cinema 2:

We see, and we more or less experience, a powerful organization of poverty and oppression. And we are precisely not without sensory-motor schemata for recognizing such things, for putting up with and approving of them and for behaving ourselves subsequently, taking into account our situation, our capabilities, and our taste. We have schemata for turning away when it is too unpleasant, for prompting resignation when it is terrible and for assimilating when it is too beautiful.

Now more than ever we need to disorient our perception in order to truly “see” the world that is around us and unlock potentials we never noticed. It is through realizing unrealized possibilities together in a movement for economic democracy that we can embody a new politics of hope.

Imagining a Cooperative New Life Together

The value of Alperovitz’s book is in how it provides a valuable third way that we haven’t paid sufficient attention to, even though it has, in some cases, been right in front of us. The problem is that liberals and progressives want to simply tax the rich to fund programs for the poor to help them become middle class, even lamenting the boogeyman of capitalism, while conservatives fight for the status quo that gives them privilege, as they fearfully howl about the threat of socialism. Alperovitz urges to think about institutional change that avoids the pitfalls of each position.

As a progressive, it was news to me that 130 million Americans (40 percent) are already engaged in some form of cooperative ownership. Co-ops and public/employee ownership is an example of the kind of institutional change Alperovitz wants to foster. Taxing the rich assumes that the rich will always be there, that institutions that generate the super rich—big corporations and banks, for example—are engrained to the point of permanence. Alperovitz tells us “virtually all the gains of the entire economic system have gone to a tiny, tiny group at the top for at least the last three decades.” This is the group of wealthy individuals that Occupy Wall Street identified as the 1 percent, and now in the shadow of the Occupy movement we must move beyond protest to take steps toward democratizing wealth through incremental changes in how businesses and governments are organized and implemented.

Ironically, Alperovitz returns to the original Chicago School’s proposal in the “Chicago Plan” that called for “outright public ownership of Federal Reserve banks, the nationalization of money creation, and the transformation of private banks into highly restricted savings-and-loan like institutions.” Alperovitz’s point is that regulation can’t work: big corporations and banks, even if slimmed down, quickly regain their strength and take us back to square one, through regulating the regulators, due to their lobbying and economic power. Rhetoric about “taxing the rich” and “breaking up big banks” is not enough; the only option is to work toward the creation of ever more and stronger public utilities.

This is a route many of us have yet to seriously consider and see working even in our own midst. For example, South Dakota, one of the most conservative states in the United States, has had a state-run bank for many years and it has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to its economy. We can’t assume that what has worked in the past to reform the economy will work in the present. Legislation and regulation is not enough, and the alternative Alperovitz articulates having to do with steady “evolutionary” change leading toward the creation of public ownership and utilities may just be a solution both liberals and conservatives can agree on.

Rethinking the new economy will take a prophetic imagination. Alperovitz calls us to reimagine our life together. He invokes the Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s principle of community, quoting Buber writing “a society can be called structurally rich to the extent that it is built up of genuine societies.” Building genuine societies entails local community organizing to gather fellow ordinary citizens for social change. As we engage in local economy and politics, Buber challenges us not to instrumentalize others, but to treat them with compassion and dignity. We will not be able to achieve democracy as a nation until we learn how to practice democracy in our local communities.

The faith-rooted organizing of the Civil Rights movement demonstrated the possibility of building beloved community through the power of nonviolent protest politics. As the Trayvon Martin verdict unveils, racism remains alive in the United States. While I agree with Alperovitz’s call to democratize wealth, I think he needs a stronger race critique in his analysis and solution, as the current configuration of economy continues to benefit whites, while many people of color end up stuck in a permanent underclass. The dream for a democratization of wealth must privilege communities of color, who have been systematically excluded from the American dream since our country’s founding.

Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, we must advance the dream through developing “new economy” institutions. Faith-rooted organizing through protest politics generates a sense of progressive community and effects positive progressive policy changes, but too often, the economic system remains unchanged. Today it is vital that we build solidarity through democratizing wealth and building a community-sustaining economy from the ground up. Groundswells of ordinary citizens are catching this democratic dream and working together to achieve it.

Rev. Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Ph.D., an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is the director of the Micah Institute and associate professor of systematic theology at New York Theological Seminary. Bo Eberle is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary. His research interests include process theology and post-structuralism and religion.