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Saturday, May 4, 2013


I have been hard at work for the past several days, editing and sorting the ninety or more published and unpublished journal articles, reviews, comments, political manifestos, letters to the editor, and blog tutorials, mini-tutorials, micro-tutorials, and appreciations that will eventually be offered on in a series of e-books.  In the oddly self-referential and inward-looking world that I call my life, the only thing that takes precedence over writing is reading what I have written, so I have been derelict in responding to the interesting comments posted on my blog about the future of American capitalism.  Now that I have reached a momentary stopping point in the editing, I can turn my attention to those comments.  Happily, I have also finished reading Gar Alperovitz's new book, What Then Must We Do:  Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, which speaks directly to the issues raised by my brief blog post.

A few quick responses first.  Michael asks whether I had heard of the story about the UMass Amherst Econ grad student who exploded the reputations of the two big deal Harvard economists who have been pushing austerity.  I have indeed.  I simply love the idea that a student is handed the rather uninspiring exercise of checking some published article as a way of improving his data analysis skills and ends up blowing a hole in one of the most influential pieces of research of recent years!  How cool is that!

The article linked to by JP Smit turned out to be a quite interesting review of a lot of recent work on the question why capitalist firms do not continue to grow forever, until one firm owns everything.  The reason, apparently, is that there are costs associated with too large expansion that more than outweigh the potential gains -- information costs, management costs, and so forth.  By some measures, it seems, firms have not grown larger on average in the last twenty or thirty years.

Now to the Alperovitz book.  It is written in a chatty, breezy style that gets on my nerves, but it says some very interesting and important things.  In a nutshell, Alperovitz thinks that there are a very large number of developments on the ground in the American economy that suggest, first, that many millions of Americans are already hard at work trying to create and sustain alternative economic institutions to the dominant capitalist ones, and second that the direction of development of the American economy offers some hope and some opportunities for the growth of such alternatives.  His message is that all of us, in some way or other, need to get off our butts and get involved with those developments, while also trying to articulate a coherent, systematic analysis and set of strategies for major economic change.

Alperovitz has in mind such developments as food cooperatives, state or local partnerships with collectives in energy generation and many other areas, worker-owned firms, land trusts, and many more.  A theme he repeats several times, is "If you don't like corporate capitalism and you don't like state socialism, what do you want?"  [The implication being, once you have figured out the answer to that question, start building it.]

There is a good deal in the short book, and I recommend it to you.  Let me take a few moments to put down some thoughts that it provoked in me.

Marx wrote a great deal about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but very little about the transition, if there is to be one, from capitalism to socialism.  We are accustomed to thinking about the latter transition as coming about by way of a revolution,  but that is not at all the way in which the transition from feudalism to capitalism occurred.  Capitalism really did grow, slowly and bit by bit, "in the womb of the old," to quote Marx's famous phrase.  The men and women who brought capitalism into existence had little or no conception of any larger project in which they were engaged.  The English, French, and American revolutions were political revolutions that ratified or codified economic changes that had already taken place on the ground.  If we try seriously to ask, as Alperovitz does, what the next American economic system is going to look like, and how it is going to come into existence, his reply, which is to look at thousands of ground-up changes already taking place, seems in many ways the right way to think about such a transition.

Alperovitz is extremely cautious about making rosy predictions, and he is painfully aware, as we all are, of the powerful forces defending the existing capitalist order and the massive obstacles in the way of change.  But he makes two points that strike me as correct:  First, changes are already being instituted and experimented with, and the only way to find out what they can amount to is for all of us, in the millions, to throw ourselves into those changes and move them along;  and Second [this is, I think, the really important message], each of these changes, all by itself, makes life a little bit better for the people who are bringing it about, so the efforts they are expending are not wasted, regardless of whether they become part of a larger movement.  A food cooperative is a good thing for its members, a land trust helps to sustain a community, a worker-owned business, however small, is a benefit to the workers who own it.

It is quite possible of course, as Alperovitz clearly understands, that all these efforts may in the end be swamped by larger forces and accumulations of wealth that stand against them.  But real change will only come as the result of the efforts of scores of millions of people;  it will never happen merely as the relentless playing out of impersonal forces independently of our efforts and commitments. 

I do not honestly know whether many, many small initiatives can ever add up to major systemic change.  But I cannot see any alternative --certainly not "armed revolution," whatever that would actually be.

Take a look at the book, and others like it.



formerly a wage slave said...

Your post reminded me of the last line of George Eliot's "Middlemarch", in which she assesses her heroine's life. I wouldn't want to maim Eliot's words, but it seems to me very important to say that short of system change, there are yet enormously important things each individual has within their grasp, but also that one never quite knows exactly what those acts may contribute to the future. Better that I quote George Eliot now:
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

LFC said...

@formerly a wage slave:

One of my favorite lines. So nice to see it being quoted. :)