No 523 Posted by fw, July 17, 2012
In his keynote address to the Green Party’s National Convention, activist and historian Gar Alperovitz proclaimed – and I’m paraphrasing —“Revolutions begin in rooms like this, with people like you stepping up to transform the most powerful corporate capitalist system in the history of the world. We are laying the groundwork for the “Next Great Revolution”.
Gar Alperovitz’s thesis to support his bold assertion goes something like this —
The current political and corporate capitalist systems in the U.S. are broken. Problems are wicked and cannot be managed the old way. People at the grassroots level sense something is wrong but don’t quite know what to do about it. But they do know there has to be a better way. The better way, according to Alperovitz, is a bottom-up transformative change. The question is: Can we rebuild a democratic system from the bottom up that changes ownership of capital from big corporations to worker-run businesses and, concurrently, is inherently Green?
Yes we can, he insists, even though acknowledging that the minority of citizen activists who will bring about that change don’t, as yet, have the experience to successfully manage transformative change. The good news is that the foundation of transformative change is already being laid by an explosive growth of worker-owned and co-op companies. Alperovitz points to Cleveland as a model for building entire communities where the 99% benefit as opposed to the existing corporate capitalist system that benefits only the 1%. These kinds of experiments are the only way to build a popular mass movement. However, to achieve this transformative change, citizen activists will have to rise above the current level of relying primarily on “projects and politics” to the level of “existential self-awareness”. And that’s hard to do.
Here’s a 25:16-minute video of Alperovitz’s keynote address, followed by my abridged transcript with added subheadings to facilitate speedy browsing of main ideas.
Revolutions begin in rooms like this, with people like you, stepping up to transform the most powerful corporate capitalist system in the history of the world
…you begin [historical change by] fighting small and you expand when the time is right, and you make an impact because the other things are failing. That is what has happened in many, many cases. Revolutions are as common as grass and world history, and they begin in rooms like this… That is how it works. That is how it works. When I say I take you all seriously, first, I’m talking to the person in your personal seat. So when I say I take you seriously, you, maybe more seriously than you take yourself, I mean to say that the beginnings of the next great historic change come from us taking ourselves that seriously. So, I urge — and I think many people here do — but I urge that you sit back and say, am I up to that or am I just doing politics, or am I really up to that? Now that is transforming the most powerful corporate capitalist system in the history of the world. That is what it is about. And to say that I take you seriously is to say that that is what you’re stepping up to, not simply a gesture, not simply a new party, not simply a green movement. It is that, and that is the challenge.
Now, I am very cold-eyed realist. I did run House and Senate staffs. I’ve even done stuff for my pains and for my sins, planning U.N. policy in the State Department before I left that world many years ago. I have been involved in the nitty-gritty of ugly politics. I am no naive guy. And I say again that we have the possibility, if we look at the stage we are at and what is happening to the era and who we are existentially — I am talking to the person in your chair — and if we know who we are and take ourselves that seriously, we have that possibility. So, let me go on.
This is the most important period of American history bar none. The current system is running out of options. Problems are wicked and cannot be managed the old way.
The second thing I want to say is, I don’t think that is always true. But I do think that the emerging era of history into which we are living our lives, the era into which we are living, may well be the most important period of American history bar none. Now, I say it as a historian and others would disagree, but I don’t say it lightly. And when I say bar none, I mean including the American Revolution and including the 1960’s and the Civil War. Whoa, that is a heavy rap, as we used to say in the 1960’s. What I mean is that in many ways, the system is running out of options, and we are beginning to see more and more people aware of the difficulties that cannot be managed the old way.
The crises are systemic. Washington is broken. Either we transform the system or risk violent societal disruptions
Most people know Washington is broken. They have not quite realized that the systemic problems are coming to the surface, that it’s a systemic crisis. You may get ripples of increased gain and jobs and so forth, but you can’t deal with climate change, you can’t deal with unemployment, you can’t deal with poverty, and we keep getting more and more decay. That’s light bulb time. That’s when people begin to asking very serious questions. Now, remember, when I say that I come at it as a historian. You got to throw a couple of decades of your life on the table, not a couple of weeks and not a couple elections. But, there is growing sentiment on all sides that either we transform the system or profound difficulties, violence, probably repression, possibly something like fascism when the violence begins, there is great danger.
Millions of people sense something is wrong. They just don’t know what to do about it. But they do know there has to be a better way
But lots of folks sense something is wrong. The first in my adult life that you find millions of people responding. Listen to the response: Occupy. Occupy was critical, far more important. The American people responded to Occupy. They got it, they know, they know who runs this game. It’s no secret, and it’s a new kind of awareness that something is going on with those big banks and something’s going on with these corporations that don’t quite know how to get a handle on it, but it is not like if we just elect a Democrat it’s all going to be fine and the progressive era will start again. There is a sense that is very deep, and in my view, given the inability to solve the problems, that’s going to be worse, and the pain is going to increase and the number of people saying, there has got to be a better way, something different has got to happen, somehow we’ve got to start in a different place, somehow either we build something new or this thing is a sham.
People at the grassroots level don’t currently have the experience to manage transformative change. They need time to organize
That’s a big deal in history. That’s a big deal when people begin asking those kinds of questions. Now, it takes a long, painful process, but notice this system probably does not reform in the old liberal way for all the reasons we know including the labor movement has collapsed from 35% to down to 7% in the private sector. But, probably it doesn’t have a classic revolution, because government is 30% of the big floor under the economy. You get decay and stagnation, pain and difficulty. That is a very unusual moment in history because it goes on and gives time for people to be aware and to build democratically from the bottom up. If it collapsed tomorrow, the right wing would take over. And if it collapsed to the left, we wouldn’t be prepared. And above all, we wouldn’t know from the bottom of our own experience how to build and run and change and transform the system. This is an era where things are beginning to open up over time. Time for us. Including the person standing here and in your seat.
History teaches us that systems are defined by those who control the wealth. Right now corporate capitalists control the systems, the capital wealth and the power
Let me put it another way—-the third thing I want to say—-systems in history are defined above all by who controls the wealth; no secret. In the feudal era, land was the critical piece. If you had the land and you were the lord, you commanded. In the 19th century, there was the kind of capitalism that was sort of free enterprise. Most of the free enterprise small business capitalists of the 19th century were actually farmers. They ran a small business called a farm. That was a different, maybe a free time in some ways, but a very different time. State socialism was a different way to own capital throughout the system. That is another way to go about it, and we live now in essentially what is called corporate capitalism. And if you look at who owns the system and the power, you all know the income number distribution numbers, they’re pretty obvious. It’s gone from about—-the top 1% has gone from about 10% to 22% and then bobbling around given the recession in the 20% range. Think of that, it’s gone from 10% to 20% in 30 years. Who lost that money? But wealth is even worse.
The top 400 people in America own more wealth that the bottom 185 million Americans
The way you define the system is who owns the capital wealth, and 1% owns just about half all the investment business capital, 1%. 5% owns 70%. And the top — this is a number you got to get your head around, really odd and I checked many times — think about this, the top 400 people, not percent, people, 400 own more wealth now than the bottom 185 million Americans taken together. That is a medieval structure. I don’t mean that rhetorically, I mean that technically that is the way you concentrated wealth in the medieval era, really.
Can we build a democratic system from the bottom up that changes the ownership of capital and is inherently Green? That’s the challenge.
So, the question becomes — and here is the third (sic) thing I think a lot about we do a lot with — is there any sign if you don’t like state socialism, you don’t like corporate capitalism that we can build a democratic system from the bottom up that also changes the ownership of capital and is also inherently Green? How do we do that? We — we.
Yes We Can! In fact we’re already doing it with worker-owned and co-op companies. And we’re going to do a lot more of it
One of the things happening, and this is exciting stuff going on, and the press simply does not cover, they don’t have an interest. If they had any interest, they’d be able to look at the other way because they — but they don’t have any money to do it. The press is being stripped of all capacity to report. But on the ground there are now, what, 10 million people involved a worker-owned companies. Did you know that? 10 million, in America. 130 Million are involved in co-ops and co-op credit unions. 40% of society. Four or five thousand neighborhood owned corporations, thousands of social enterprises. Odd bits and pieces here and there like Sarah Palin’s Alaska; they use the oil revenues as a matter of legal right, everybody gets a piece; it’s a maverick country but there it is. They don’t do that in Texas. We’re going to do that a lot elsewhere when we get to where we’re going to get.
These kinds of experiments, along with the projects and politics, are the only way to build a popular mass movement
If you look carefully on the ground, there are these social enterprises popping up, credit unions, etc., etc. and there are many, many more experiments. Something like 20 states now have legislation before them like the Bank of North Dakota, a state owned bank, and many other states. Another 20 approximately are considering single payer. And here is the issue, as the pain deepens — that’s why the era is critical — as the pain deepens and we have time to build, and we work to build, more and more people begin to see, you’ve got to come up with a new answer. My judgment is — and I think I’m not blowing smoke — those kinds of experiments are the only way to build the popular base, with the politics and the projects, with the politics and the projects.
Cleveland provides a model for building whole communities where the 99% benefit, not just the 1% of capitalist owners
There is a really beautiful thing going on in Ohio in Cleveland, we have been involved with. I was involved with the Youngstown workers in 1977 when the first big steel closing occurred, the workers tried to take over and they got clobbered. But, they organized their politics and got a lot of people involved. So, in Ohio, the idea of worker ownership is a bigger idea. Lots of people understand it. And in Cleveland, building on the Mondragon model, we know about the Mondragon model and other ideas, there are a series of worker owned integrated co-ops in Cleveland in a neighborhood where the average income is $18,000 per family. And they have these co-ops not just standing alone, but linked together with a non-profit corporation and a revolving fund. The idea is to build the community and worker ownership, not just make a couple workers richer, to say the least, not just rich but to build a whole community, and to use the purchasing power of hospitals and universities, tax money in there, Medicare, Medicaid, education money, buy from these guys and build the community. That model and it’s the greenest — for one of the things — the greenest laundry in that part of the country, that uses about one-third of the heat, about a third of the electricity and about a third of the water. They’re on track now to put in more solar capacity that exists — one of the other worker owned companies that exists in the entire state of Ohio. These are not little-thinking co-ops.
There’s another one they’re just about to open which is a greenhouse; 3.25 acres. The greenhouse hydroponic will be the largest in the United States in an urban area, the largest in a worker co-op, worker-owned, in a community building structure, capable of producing something like 5 million heads of lettuce a year, capable of producing something like 5 million heads of lettuce a year. That’s happening. You could do that, and you could force the politicians to help you do that.
To learn more about thousands of other “New Deal” things that are happening in America visit this website
There is a website, Community-wealth.org, [where] you will find thousands of things that are happening on the ground that change the ownership of wealth and begin to green the economy, and it is part of the new deal that we’re going to build forward as we go on through the decay. That’s the direction.
These are the kinds of things that are the prehistory of the next great revolution. And this is how you build it
Those are the kind of things that are the prehistory of the next great revolution. That’s how you build it. You generate the ideas and then you begin to protect national ideas out of real experience and out of real commitment. So, did you happen to notice, we did not nationalize the two big auto companies when those crises came, and we pretty much nationalized the banks before we gave them back. So when those crises come, and they will come, if we’re prepared with a highly democratic vision and if we know something and if we build the politics, I’m not just talking about communities, that’s critical; if you don’t have democratic experience in local communities you’ve got nothing. But, the ideas like Wisconsin pointing to the New Deal, those ideas also generate vision for the long, larger scale when time goes on and we build forward.
So, now that’s also a heavy wrap. I am saying that we are laying the foundations bit by bit in an extremely unusual period of history, the most important moment in history because we’re running out of options, in my view. And mine is suggesting we can take it forward in a positive way.
“The most radical thing you’re going to hear – I think there is hope”
I want to say something far more radical than I have said before. This is the most radical thing you’re going to hear. I think there is hope. I’m no Utopian. I don’t mean it is going to be hard and tough and a lot of stuff is going to go wrong and a lot of pain and a lot of difficulty. But I don’t think they’ve got all the answers and I don’t think that they’ve got all the power and I don’t think they can solve it. And I do believe — the person in your chair, why I take you seriously — can you wrap your heads around, really, I mean, really, that we are in a position to lay down the foundations for the next great transformation? Really? Not just doing token politics, not just building the party. All that is critical. Not just laying the foundations. But really laying the groundwork for transformation into a highly democratic new system beyond the old traditions, one that is sustainable, one that gives a climate change, but also alters the ownership and democratizes wealth. That is our question.
People understand that something different really has to happen
One last thing. I give you just a little fragment more of the book [America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy]. Two fragments, actually. This is a really interesting one. They have been polling younger people, people in the range of 18-29. These are people who really will build the next politics; a lot of them in this room. Now, it turns out that in the latest polls, it turns out that when you look at it, about 45%, 43% have a positive reaction to the word capitalism and 49% of a positive reaction to the word socialism. I don’t know that any of those folks actually know what the word socialism means, but the idea that they understand something different really that has got to happen is embedded in those politics.
Projects and politics alone aren’t enough to transform the system. We have to rise above that – to the level of existential self-awareness. And that’s hard to do
But, one last one I saw just the other day, I did a piece for Sojourn Magazine, one of the real radical activists group of religious Christians. One of the pieces of poll data I saw was this, said that 36% of all Americans polled — one of the big polling agencies, not a side one, not a biased one — 36% decided and were quite sure that capitalism, Christianity and capitalism cannot be reconciled. So, my urging, I am pleased to be here, but I don’t think anybody moves the ball like people in this room when they get serious…. [M]y suggestion to you is that we together are in fact capable if we rise to that level of existential self-awareness. Real hard [to do]. Real hard. People want to do projects, they want to do politics, they don’t want to get as serious as it takes to really transform the system. So, that I think that is our challenge and I see a lot of people in this room up and ready to do it.
Thank you for having me.
Gar Alperovitz is professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative.