Living in the New “Pre-History”: An Interview with Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz, a founding principal of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, is a chaired professor there. He has also been a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and of King’s College, Cambridge. His most recent book is America Beyond Capitalism, and his new book What Then Must We Do? will be published by Chelsea Green this spring.


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The problem with pure worker ownership of large industries is that the worker/owners are under the same market pressures as any other company. They are therefore as likely to pollute the environment, for example, if they’re under competitive pressures to do so, as the next guys.  So that means the worker-owned company’s interests are somewhat different from that of its surrounding community—which includes elderly people, young people, all those who happen to be out of the workforce. After all, half the society at any one time is not part of that worker ownership.

Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, for example, is a key initiative that reflects this worker-community model, and which we helped design.

op-ed on the quiet revolution in worker ownership that has been growing in recent years and yet has been little noticed. line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Well, to start with, the national media doesn’t cover much at the local level—they don’t have the resources any more to do so and that’s getting worse, not better. So it’s not surprising that people don’t know about this development.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Some 130 million people now belong to a co-op or credit union. Neighborhood owned corporations number between four and five thousand.  There are several thousand social enterprises, increasing numbers of B Corporations, growing numbers of city- or neighborhood-owned land trusts.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Take the concept of municipal ownership which was favored when appropriate in its earlier days by the Chicago school of economics. There are around 2,000 municipally owned utilities around the country, with several new municipalizations in recent years.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>And more importantly, I think, people are now beginning to ask, where does this all lead to in our larger political-economic system?


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>We want a model that begins with decentralization and the principles of community and with the recognition that creating local community requires stability. That means people anchored in a place where they can flourish, rather than being forced to move, as was the case with millions of residents of Detroit or Youngstown. Cleveland was once 900,000 in population; it’s now less than 400,000. How can you have democracy when people are totally uncertain about their economic future? So stability is required.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>In the earlier days of the Chicago School of economics, which I have considerable respect for because of its rigor and integrity in that period, they faced the fact that many big banks and indeed corporations were not supportive of communities. These economists—I’m speaking here of Henry Simons, Milton Friedman’s teacher and others—wrote important reports calling for  nationalization in certain cases, on the principle that some firms could not be regulated. This group understood regulatory capture very well, realizing further that even if you broke these institutions up, they would simply find a way to regroup and be back at the same game again.


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The Evergreen Coops in Cleveland make reference to the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain, an enterprise that was founded by a Catholic priest on Catholic social principles. The Cleveland project is purely secular in nature but it seems to retain much of that spirit. Were you instrumental in bringing the Mondragon model to bear in Cleveland? line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>It’s an interesting tale. There are very powerful roots of cooperative thinking in Catholic social thought in general, leaving aside Mondragon. In some ways, however, we at the Democracy Collaborative had already been working on finding ways of using the procurement process at public institutions—hospitals and universities in particular—as a way to create and stabilize jobs that represented some form of worker or neighborhood or community ownership. All this was quite independent of Mondragon. It was only later in the project that we began to see things we could learn from Mondragon, such as how to implement a revolving fund in the various cooperative structures.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>In the U.K., the Cameron government was for a time promoting a vision of the Big Society as a way of regenerating local communities. One of the more visible proponents of this bottom-up vision of civic renewal was the social philosopher Phillip Blond. Any thoughts on this Big Society initiative? line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>I’m certainly aware of Blond and have a general sense of his work. When we think about community—and I have favorably quoted the work of Robert Nisbet also on this subject—we sometimes come up against the difficulty that when some groups pursue community-building, they tend to avoid the harder economic issues. I think that’s a real danger for some of communitarian thought, the tendency to leave to one side these important economic issues.


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>We, on the other hand, have some 315 million people spread out over 3.5 million square miles. We are headed toward 500 million people and thus the argument for decentralizing. If most states are too small and the continent itself is too large, what’s left –if democracy is to flourish–is the intermediate unit, the region.

The Size of Nations. He and his colleagues have been looking at the economic effects of scale, a topic which has not received much attention for decades. I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times several years ago on the possibility of California leading the way toward this kind of devolution and I explained why I thought it had to happen: as the only way to avoid the mounting inefficiencies, political and economical, which occur when states become too large. So I see recent developments tending to confirm regionalism from converging angles.


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>But there are times when things are breaking down—and this is such a period—when ideas do matter and people are forced to think about things.


What Then Must We Do?, a phrase taken from Tolstoy. I suggest that traditional liberalism, traditional conservatism and traditional radicalism are now at a dead end. We are in a strange form of crisis which will neither end in societal collapse (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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Moreover, as I argue in the book, we are potentially in the pre-history of truly fundamental change, beyond traditional corporate capitalism, beyond state socialism. So all this experimentation is very important and it could be laying the foundations of something for the long-term.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for the American Scholar, the American Conservative, the Washington Times and the Chicago Observer and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.