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A New Society From the Bottom Up

Gar Alperovitz, writer and political economist at University of Maryland and co-founder of The Democracy Collaborative, has just released a new book, What Then Must We Do?, which sets out to answer the big questions hanging over our future: how can we achieve real democracy in our daily lives, in our work and our communities? How can we solve the many crises we face, and build ecologically and economically sustainable ventures and enterprises that also make our lives more fulfilling? What can we do to help overcome inequality and injustice? I was lucky enough to get to talk to Alperovitz and ask him some questions about the short and long-term strategies he envisions for democratic change, current models of democratization and bottom-up economic activism, government policy, revolutionary movement building and many other things besides. If you’d like some context for our conversation, you can read my review of the book here.

Willie: So I wanted to start out with a question that intrigued me as I was reading the book: who do you envision as the “We” of the title, and who you address throughout the book? Progressives? Solidarity Economy Participants? Revolutionaries? Who were you imagining as the ‘we’ this book is addressed to?

Gar: All three. And there are a lot of people who don’t self-identify that way, there are a lot of people who are really interested in fundamental change, but don’t fall into the categories that we normally think about. There are a lot of people on the edges trying to decide whether to participate. I’m doing this book tour and going around the country, and people come out of the woodwork at these readings, and they are searching and looking for a different direction. And similarly the Occupy movement left a lot of people with a lot of questions: “Where are we going? Is there another way forward?” So broadly speaking, even amongst radicals, most people are open to thinking about new directions, but they don’t have a fully coherently defined vision of where they’re going and how to go forward. The book is aimed at a very broad group of people.

Willie: You argue throughout the book, and I tend to agree, that the age in which the labor movement and other traditional activist or left and liberal alliances effect policy is over. But you also argue that it will require change of governmental economic intervention in order to achieve further democratic gains. On a local level, you see a “checkerboard strategy” as paramount. How do you think people can begin changing their cities or states towards deeper democracy, and how do you see the interplay between cities and states changing the dialogue?

Gar: Regarding cities, it’s a very mixed bag, and I tried to portray that with the checkerboard strategy. Some cities are really taken over by extreme right-wing groups or are very conservative, and the whole name of the game there is to sell off city assets and to cut back on pension funds and wages for workers, placing the taxpayer interest in the worst way. That’s certainly one tendency.

But there are other cities where that really isn’t true, and there’s a lot of opportunity for different movements. The most obvious case here is Cleveland. That’s a city that’s been in very bad economic shape. But it turns out a different strategy of building cooperatives, of changing ownership and building land trusts, once the city officials understood it, made a lot of sense to them, and they began using all the policy tools and programs available to them in very creative ways.

It partly has to do with politics but it also has to do with awareness. I’ve done a lot of ‘real’ hardnosed politics, but sometimes what is critical is awareness. They’re just not aware of what they could do in a different direction. In those cases, particularly if there’s an activist involvement, you get a different shift. So for instance, something like the Cleveland model is beginning to emerge in ten different cities: Atlanta is the most advanced, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are doing something based on the same model. We’ve received 110 inquiries—a significant number of cities are interested, but they just hadn’t thought of what they could do with the existing powers they have. What hasn’t happened yet, although I think Cincinnati is close, we haven’t seen activists actually figuring out ways to move the ball in these new models. And I think that’s the next stage. We’ve seen it in the case of New Era Windows, which has a powerful activist component within and also broad support for the model from outside. I think we’re gonna see more and more of that as time goes on. That’s my sense of what’s happening just from talking to a lot of people—there are no studies, at this stage of the game you pick up information by talking to a lot of people, the newspapers certainly don’t cover it, academics don’t cover it…

Willie: In your book you also talk about much larger scale transitions, happening at a national level. Considering that the federal government is already largely ‘captured’ by corporate interests and the financial industry, it seems to me very unlikely that the government of the rich would voluntarily nationalize industries in a democratic way, rather than merely a stop-gap way as we saw with AIG and GM. You argue that these major transformations may occur under further crisis, but do you think a social force or movement is required to force the government in that direction, or will crisis somehow produce this result on its own? And if the former, if we need a social force, in your vision, what would constitute that force and how would it be built?

Gar:I don’t think the government’s gonna do it of it’s own volition. Period. That’s not the argument. And I don’t think you can expect a transformation at the national level without the prior build up of models, knowledge and politics around ownership structures step by step at the local and state level. Part of what actually has been underlined in a lot of activist work is that the introduction of models is not simply about building cooperatives or worker-owned companies, although that is very important. It is also about introducing into American political culture the simple idea that democratizing ownership at all levels is important. One of the problems with traditional activism has been it does not have a whole set of thematics that actually lead toward systemic change. Activism largely tries to roll back some evil, or get a regulation changed, or get a little more money for lower income people. So it’s within the confines of the corporate state, with liberalism attempting to clean up as much as it can around the edges.

What I really strongly feel and argue with the book, is that unless we begin to reshape the assumptions about what the larger goal is, and unless it’s done in everyday life so that people can begin to experience it directly, you don’t get the concepts that are required for the new politics. It’s explicit in the book that there’s a long period of developing not only models—although that’s critical because they’re also a power base that can help build institutional power—but also changing the ideology. Changing what it is people are demanding and having ready reasons for why they demand it. So that over time, when crises occur at the higher level, with banking or healthcare or the next General Motors, people actually have experience and in their minds a clear demand of why its important to transform the ownership as well.

The book really is about thirty years of development, both of models but also of how to think about the larger level. If you’re really thinking about transformation in a serious historical way, the critical question is how you actually introduce into American culture the notion that democratizing ownership from the bottom up is an important ingredient not only to systemic change but to movement building. It’s just beginning to be fragmented around the edges, but it hasn’t been generalized to a systemic vision.

Protesters marcing in Sao Paolo

Willie: I’m not sure how much you’ve been keeping up with the news out of Turkey and Brazil, it’s certainly been largely kept out of the ‘mainstream media’ but right now in both countries there is a major uprising that has been sparked by exactly such issues of local democratic governance: the question of authoritarian development of public space in Turkey, and in Brazil the rising costs of public transit. What do you see as important in these movements? What role do you think such major social actions have in democratizing society?

Gar: I think they’re both positive movement building, but in both cases they are very preliminary ideas. One is “stop taking down the trees in the park”, at least that’s what started it all in Turkey, preserve the park: it’s a movement that got angry about urban design, if you like. During the 1960s and the 1970s, there were explosive developments of that kind all over the United States, mainly around stopping highways or the ripping up of neighborhoods. But it did not progress to the system questions. It could have. The content could have essentially been to make it public ownership under neighborhood control or in a democratizing institutional demand. That could have developed, but it didn’t, except in a couple cases like Dudley street in Boston, a very interesting development, where they actually took over the development and got eminent domain to do it under community ownership. But that was very rare. It’s mostly “Stop. Don’t do it. Don’t screw something up. Don’t rip down the houses here. Don’t put a highway here.” It had a negative force. I’m not as familiar with the Brazil case, there it’s public transit right?

Willie: Yes, the immediate cause was a rise in bus prices, but like in Turkey police brutality against protesters made it spread.

Gar: These are preliminary skirmishes in some sense. They don’t necessarily lead up to a much larger build up of systemic vision and demand. They are necessary skirmishes. But as with the fights over liberal policies, largely they want a restoration of what was. In the case of the park in Turkey-“let it be” and the case in Brazil as far as I understand it “keep the old rates”. They have a potential quality to go beyond that, but without activists beginning to get concerned about :“what is the vision we have for the direction of the next system, what does it really have in terms of content and how to we build that into our politics, our demands, our construction of something?” Unless that is self-conscious and aware, really the argument of the book, it doesn’t happen.

Willie: To stay globally focused for a moment, you speak about Mondragon corporation in Spain, but we’re also seeing some of these crisis transformations toward democracy happening particularly in Greece and Spain, but also throughout the world: what cities globally do you see as inspiration for this kind of governance? Are there any models you think are important outside the US?

A related aspect of this which is really interesting, because it gets you through systemic design beyond just creating worker-owned coops is happening in Argentina, where a substantial number of existing worker coops are structured in a way that begins to build a model that has implications for the state as well. It looks very much like the Cleveland Model in one sense. Buenos Aires municipality in many cases has been serving as a purchaser of services of the worker coops—that’s very much similar in terms of the logical design of Cleveland, where, between the hospitals and the universities, a lot of public money is buying from the worker coop’s to stabilize their market. It’s an interesting advance that people haven’t noticed in Argentina, that that whole design gets you to the relationship between the public, that is the city or the government, using its powers in a different direction to support worker owned companies. And that’s a critical ingredient in terms of getting to a systemic design rather than simply a bunch of projects.

Willie: I’d love to have you get into the nitty-gritty about the “Cleveland model”, which you get into in the book, and talk about the way that anchor institution strategies can function with municipal governments to transform an entire city. How has it happened in Cleveland? And how do you see all these diverse methods of democratization coalescing?

Gar: The first thing to say is that we’re in a very early stage of these developments. Whatever you see on the ground any place in the country is essentially experimental and preliminary, and that’s true of the Cleveland Model as well. It came about by happenstance.

In Cleveland the principle is that you’ve got these hospitals and universities there, Case Western Reserve, Cleveland Clinic and the university hospital system, all of which implicitly get a lot of taxpayer dollars in them—Medicare, Medicaid, education money—and they’re right in the middle of very poor neighborhoods. Those three together purchase about $3 billion in goods and services a year, leaving aside salaries and all the construction budgets combined as separate from that, it’s still $3 billion. Why not begin to turn some of that into a support system where the supply can be worker owned companies that are building the neighborhood?

The Cleveland model is a lot more than just the worker owned model—it’s in some ways based on Mondragon but it’s geographic, that is it’s aimed at a neighborhood. So there’s a non-profit corporation, the goal of which is to benefit the neighborhood, and the worker-owned companies are essentially linked to that structure, and build new ones with a revolving fund. The goal is to build up this very poor neighborhood, with almost 40% unemployment, where the average family income is $18,000, it’s a very poor neighborhood right in the middle of these big anchor institutions. The most important thing taken from Mondragon is the revolving fund. The most important elements are creating in this case a laundry and a greenhouse and a solar installation company and several more that are going to come on. You make the geographic linkage and then begin to tap into the purchasing power of the big non-profits in the area.

But in Cincinnati, and in many other cities now, that design has appealed to much more activist groups. So in Cincinnati they’re beginning at the bottom up and developing an agricultural coop, they’re developing hopefully--in fact with Mondragon aid--they’re looking into building the undercarriages of rail cars, to have the rail industry expand in certain areas, they’re exploring solar operations, but it’s all coming out of an organizing activist strategy which is really what we were hoping for all along.

Let me put it this way: sometimes ideas matter in movement building. People don’t always recognize that. A whole new concept permits a lot of energy to be released. This paradigm, this concept of essentially using public resources or quasi-public resources, in the hospital and the university but also city government, all of that is available and could be turned to different design purposes by activists. But we’re in a very early stage of development. What is exciting is that the notion of changing and democratizing ownership is at the core of this experience, and using public powers in support of that different model, a different vision of where we ought to go with politics and activism and systemic change over time.

The vision is essentially democratizing ownership from the bottom up and it’s a new idea in American politics. Its about changing the very nature of the institutional structures. Over time it will build and get to larger and larger scale: we talk about the banking industry a lot, as time goes on that may be a place where there are major changes in the future. Partly because of the vulnerabilities of the system, because the internal crises are gonna create more and more opportunities. The same is true in health care. It’s not that the government is gonna want to do this, but because of the crisis developments there are gonna be opportunities which, if people are prepared for them and they have different ideas in their heads—not regulate the banks or even break them up but no, let’s have publics banks—if people build up those concepts, then movement building moves into a whole series of ideas that go beyond the traditional, then we’ve got a different kind of movement. It’s gonna have to be a aggressive movement, the question, the essence that I’m concerned with in this book is how do we actually begin in everyday life to introduce new themes and new ideas that lead to a new kind of system in real terms—creating a vision and strategy that builds a new society from the bottom up.

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