The question endures.
“What is to be done?” asked Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky in 1863. His novel of the same name provided emotional impetus for the Russian Revolution.
The words were soon purloined: “What is to be done?” wondered Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in 1886. Distraught by the sight of the most destitute among his compatriots, he fell back on a kind of Christian anarchism as a possible solution to their plight.
The query was repeated: “What is to be done?” demanded Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) in 1902. Lenin knew, or thought he knew, what would provide secular salvation for the masses. We’ll never know what might have become of his vision, of course, for he was prematurely removed from leadership and from life, leaving the USSR to be captured by ex-seminarian Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, otherwise known as Stalin, the so-called “man of steel.”
And now, more than a century later, there comes an echo from College Park, Maryland. Professor Gar Alperovitz invites us to ponder: “What then must we do?”
Living in nineteenth-century Czarist Russia and living in twenty-first-century America makes a difference, and it is one that makes all the difference.
“We are,” says Gar Alperovitz, “in a strange form of crisis which will neither end in a final social conflict (as in the Marxist model), nor success (as in the liberal model), nor in some conservative model. Instead we’re caught in a never-never land of sustained stagnation and decay—which I argue is a very unusual societal context, being neither reform nor collapse. I think we’ve been in this context for some time now.”
We have been in it for some time, but we will not stay in it for all time. Something will be done.
I don’t know if it is useful to call Gar Alperovitz an anarchist. Shorn of Bakunin’s beard, simultaneously deprived of Gavrilo Princip’s pistol and Emma Goldman’s floral bouquets, set apart from Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution and allowed respite among the pages of George Woodcock’s Canadian Literature, anarchism paints a complicated and sometimes contradictory self-portrait.
My preference is to regard it through the eyes more of St. Francis of Assisi than the eye-holes of the latest small-minded thug with a black balaclava—perhaps a witless revolutionary, perhaps an agent provocateur rented out from the local constabulary. As such, anarchism emerges as the most gentle and optimistic political ideology available today.
Anarchists of this soothing sort promote pacifism. They urge equity and equality. They flee from massive, hierarchical organizations, eschew bureaucracy, seek their joys in simple pleasures and are relentlessly democratic. They are convinced that humanity’s inherent goodness can be most fully revealed in small communities, that decision making is sound when it takes place in intimate groups and that work is most productive and humane when workers run the shops, offices and factories themselves.
These ideas seem congenial to what I have learned about Gar Alperovitz in the book under review and at least a cursory perusal of some of his many other writings. I have, personally, known only one prominent anarchist. His name was Paul Goodman (1911-1972). He wrote influential books from the 1940s to the 1970s. His most popular was Growing Up Absurd. When I encountered him at the University of Hawai’i (1968) and, later, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1971), he was a kind and forgiving man. The gentle and the acerbic combined within him, but the gentle prevailed. I can’t help imagining that Goodman and Alperovitz might have been friends. Perhaps they were; Alperovitz (b. 1936) is certainly old enough to have known Paul Goodman in his prime. He says that a book, Communitas (1947) written by Paul Goodman and his brother Percival, was one of the five volumes that had the greatest effect on shaping his social outlook. The others, incidentally, were Martin Buber’s Paths in Utopia (1950), Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1936), Joan Robinson’s Exercises in Economic Analysis (1960), and William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959)—I also read these as an undergraduate and, though they may not have affected me in quite the same way, I remember them well and admired them immensely. So much for deep background.
Gar Alperovitz faces the same problems as the rest of us. He is acutely aware of the unsustainability of contemporary capitalism. He understands that corporate culture and economics are ultimately doomed by the simple fact that their necessary commitment to “growth” produces inexorable ecological ruin in our own well-defined and ultimately closed global system. “Society,” he says, “has to reduce resource throughput and limit consumption.” It’s as simple and as complicated as that. What’s more, despite the unholy optimism of commerce, industry and the educational institutions that reproduce their hegemonic ideologies, there are clear indications that “people know that there is something wrong and they are saying it out loud and meaning it.” So what, then, is to be done?
Alperovitz, unlike some other rational people who are locked within a more pessimistic frame of mind, believes that the immanent demise of “late capitalism” is neither as near nor as potentially catastrophic as it might appear. Yes, population statistics, pollution and political corruption or (maybe worse) unfettered ignorance and preternatural stupidity are all abundantly in evidence and seemingly on the rise; but, Alperovitz sees around him a “slow kind of decay where we can also develop experiments and innovate.” The clock is ticking, but midnight may be some hours and not mere minutes or seconds away. He therefore allows for the possibility of a hopeful kind of pragmatism: “at the local level,” he assures us, “political categories dissolve [and] you have something practical rather than ideological to talk about.”
Professor Alperovitz should know. He has certainly had experience. He teaches political economy at the University of Maryland and has been writing books for close to half a century about many of the perils of our society—wealth and poverty, democracy and tyranny and, perhaps oddly, US National Security.
Alperovitz has spent time in the service of the US State Department where he was a “Special Assistant,” as well as on Capitol Hill, where he was a senior staffer to elected officials in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He has also displayed a commitment to social policy as a founder and senior executive of a number of think-tanks including Harvard’s Institute of Politics, the Cambridge Institute, the Center for Community Economic Development, the National Center for Economic Alternatives, the Democratic Collaborative and the New Economics Institute—no thin résumé in itself. As utopian idealists with at least a faint aroma of anarchy in their wake go, Gar Alperovitz comes with a decent pedigree. So much for his adult career. Now, for the book.
What Then Must We Do? is a “good read.” It is cheerily depressing. It combines a frank assessment of the current situation (bad, tending toward the miserable) with a hopeful examination of the distinct possibilities for improvement in the future. It is filled with fascinating details that, while not astonishing, do catch the eye. One that has been mentioned by a number of readers is the fact that if the personal wealth of the United States were to be equally distributed, the annual income of each and every American citizen would be close to a quarter of a million dollars—a striking way to imagine the opulence of the 1% or, more accurately, the 1% of the 1% and the extraordinary consequences of even a modest redistribution of wealth. Anyone seeking solutions to broad social problems, never mind to grinding poverty and ripples of economic inequity that disturb and distress even the no-longer-comfortable middle classes, must start with the obvious fact of a vast and growing gap between the rich and … everyone else. It is a defining characteristic of our economy.
Alperovitz also reminds us of something else we’ve all known (or should have known) for a long time: middle and working class incomes have flat-lined in the United States for the past forty-five years; in fact, “ordinary” incomes are actually a little bit lower than they were at the time of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and, incidentally, during my first year as a postsecondary educator. So, not only is there a serious problem of economic disparity, but there is also no immediate hope, expectation or prospect of redress.
Such information is regularly mocked in the business press and was recently used to ridicule Linda McQuaig, a fearless Canadian journalist now seeking election to parliament. For example, Terence Corcoran, editor of The Financial Post, insists that Canadians don’t care about income inequity. He whines that people like McQuaig are simply self-indulgent “lefties,” rather like those who work for Statistics Canada and occasionally embarrass their political masters by letting a little of the truth leak out. I hesitate to think what corporate apologists like Corcoran would say about Gar Alperovitz.
Alperovitz, after all, is no wild-eyed radical (with or without a grenade in his hand). Yet, in calm and even casual terms, he sets out a seriously transformative scenario. Though his book is subtitled “Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution,” his approach is actually more evolutionary than revolutionary.
The fact that the uppermost four hundred individual Americans possess as much wealth as the lower one hundred and sixty million hints that a decisive assault on those plutocrats or, perhaps, kleptocrats would happily lop the head off the ruling class and permit the systematic reallocation of riches. Such talk, however, is not at all what Gar Alperovitz has in mind. Oppressive economic structures are seldom if ever overturned by a single show of error and terror. An antiquated aristocracy may be displaced, but past revolutions including the American, the French, the Russian and the Chinese have mainly had the effect of turning power over to newly emerging political leaders. They did not abolish class power and privilege. They mostly reconfigured it and, in so doing, neglected to fully emancipate workers and peasants, serfs and slaves—never mind women and aboriginal peoples. Understanding this, Alperovitz is seeking something much more profound than a revolving game of musical elites—whether capitalist or state socialist. In store for humanity, he would like us to believe, is something more significant than a competition among Marxists, liberals, corporatists or other as yet undefined rude reactionaries. It’s not the winners but the nature of the game that must be changed.
The immediate reason for Alperovitz’s opinion is that, despite the lashing that middle and working-class North Americans, Europeans and others endured during the Wall Street fiasco of 2008 and its lengthy aftermath, the perpetrators of the near-collapse continue to prosper obscenely while a significant portion of the “99%” have lost savings, homes and jobs. Recovery is defined by the rise of stock prices regardless of unemployment and wage rates. The simple fact seems to be that it is the entire international corporate capitalist economy and not just the component financial, commercial, industrial and resource sectors that is “too big to fail.” The economy will not wholly recover, of course, and prosperity will certainly not be restored to the bulk of the population; but, in Alperovitz’s view, the result will be a long period of stagnation. Moreover, with the decline of organized labour, there isn’t even a source for a political push for reform—Senator Elizabeth Warren’s best efforts notwithstanding. Thus, until and unless the dispossessed in society—workers, women, racial and ethnic minorities, aboriginals, consumers, environmentalists, anti-globalization activists and others—build a kind of twenty-first-century “common front,” perhaps partly organized through the social media, the chances of transformative change are slim.
On the surface, Alperovitz is not far from advocating just such an approach, but he does so from a different base and with a different strategy. Traditional political methods directed at the regulation and redistribution of traditional patterns of wealth and power are not the means he chooses. Instead, he wishes to encourage the establishment of genuinely alternative institutions within the contemporary social framework and design them to subvert, undermine and ultimately to replace it, not through confrontation but through the gradual replacement of the old and ossified with the new, brisk and lively. In short, the new society is not to be built on the ashes of the old, but to grow within it and eventually to slough off its desiccated remains like a snake dispenses with its old, spent skin.
Alperovitz calls his idea neither reform nor revolution, but “evolutionary reconstruction.” He sees opportunities in the expansion of public assets such as community-based banks, a gradually expanded or, in some cases, revitalized public sector including everything from electrical utilities to public transit and new forms of social ownership from cooperatives to worker-owned enterprises. The key is democratizing development and allowing gigantic corporate entities—both public and private—to collapse from internal rot or just wither away. If this sounds preposterous, it is worth considering that, according to Alperovitz, the cumulative assets of American credit unions are already sufficient to knock Goldman Sachs out of the top five financial institutions. In due course, therefore, when it becomes plain that neither regulation nor futile exercises in “trust-busting” are going to work, it will be a simple and, by then, a common sense step to nationalize what’s left of the currently hegemonic corporations and reinvent them as public utilities and peoples’ enterprises.
For those who claim such a thing could never be done, Alperovitz points out that it already has been done … almost. In the Reagan era, government agencies were able to step in and fix up the mess left by the Savings and Loans fiasco and, under the Bush-Obama administration, a massive infusion of public monies was used to bail out the most egregious of the investment banks and to rescue the automobile industry. These therapeutic interventions showed plainly that such public initiatives are not only possible, but also necessary. Simply put, corporate capitalism doesn’t work.
The mistake made by President Obama and, subsequently, by other leaders of OECD nations was that, once the massive private corporations had been rescued, they were released back into the wild where, as feral firms, they could repeat the errors of the past. Everything was forgotten, nothing was learned and certainly no one was punished for the perpetration of a colossal fraud upon the public.
The conclusion? “Catch and release” may be a reasonable tactic for amateur fly-fishers, but it might be wiser for societies to flip the miscreants from the fire into the frying pan where they can be well and truly cooked and the people can gain sustenance from their passing. That, oddly enough, is not only the advice from the left, but also from the libertarian right, which has argued in the past that “too big to fail” means too big a threat to the entire economy. Megacorporations, which either dictate the legislative agenda or use their talented legal advisors to circumvent tax policy, environmental regulations and rules offering labour and consumer protection, have managed to reduce or eliminate most authentic remnants of “free enterprise” and now dominate a no longer “free market,” no matter which political party temporarily prevails. Put otherwise, Alperovitz isn’t asking us to “think outside the box,” nor even to redesign or reinvent the box; he’s suggesting that it might not only be possible, but essential for our survival to reconsider whether it is necessary to be boxed in at all.
So, what precisely is to be done?
Gar Alperovitz offers a four-tine pitch fork. It includes the aforementioned evolutionary reconstruction of mainly local institutions such as the successful “Evergreen Cooperatives” with which he has been closely associated. Based in Cleveland, Ohio, the Evergreen Cooperatives “are pioneering innovative models of job creation, wealth building, and sustainability.” Evergreen’s employee-owned, for-profit companies are based locally and hire locally. They are authentic community assets that “create meaningful green jobs and keep precious financial resources within [their] neighborhoods. Worker-owners at Evergreen earn a living wage and build equity in the firms as owners of the business.” Adam Smith, who is commonly considered the patron saint of capitalism, despised limited liability corporations which he saw as anathema to free enterprise. He believed that investment should take place only within the local community. Alperovitz would surely earn the blessing of Adam Smith,
Next comes a “checkerboard” of public ownership initiatives including land, resource and energy development. The ability of private sector firms to devastate the wilderness and to dictate the way in which primary sector industries establish the base of economic development—a matter of prime importance not only for the way in which we build our homes, workplaces and whole cities, but also for the ecological consequences of fossil fuels and extensive natural habitat invasion culminating in a vast reduction in biodiversity and life-threatening climate change.
Third is the harnessing of public outrage at the exploitation occasioned by the most damaging private sector operations. In the United States, this largely means the health insurance-pharmaceutical axis which has successfully resisted much of even President Obama’s modest health care reforms, but could easily involve both a dysfunctional financial system and an increasingly privatized and therefore inequitable and ineffective educational system.
Finally, when the time is right and corporate capitalism fails again, instead of saving private enterprise from itself, Alperovitz proposes that the logical step will be at least joint private-public ownership of the major economic sectors or, preferably, “big crisis-related transformative strategies,” or socialization by another name.
It is worth considering that the public lenders didn’t have to restore General Motors to its putative ownership (which, along with others of its kind, forced the City of Detroit into bankruptcy, driving its citizens into poverty all the while preserving untouched the homes and lifestyles of the wealthiest suburban executive enclaves and cutting a sweetheart deal with Washington to save itself from ruin. With this in mind, Alperovitz looks ahead to the next collapse and wonders aloud whether the American government, in cooperation with the United Auto Workers, mightn’t have made a better arrangement in the interests of the American people and the future of the industry by taking over GM and Chrysler as well.
The hoots of derision, of course, are plentiful and loud. We are so besotted by the ideology of the corporate controlled market that we appear incapable of imaging life without its overarching dominance. One thing, however, is certain: if Gar Alperovitz is wrong, then the prospects for the planet and its human population are more perilous than we might fear. It is clear that the people currently in charge have no idea of the problems we face and less sense of how to redeem our species. Something will be done and, left in the hands of the current ruling classes, our fate or that of our children and our children’s children promises to be dreadful.
Buber, Martin. 1950. Paths in Utopia. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Goodman, Paul. 1960. Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System. (New York: Random House.
Goodman, Paul & Percival Goodman. 1947. Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mannheim, Karl. 1936. Ideology and Utopia. London: Routledge.
Robinson, Joan. 1960. Exercises in Economic Analysis. London: Macmillan.
Williams, William A. 1959. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Cleveland: World Publishing.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto.