- The Possibility of a Pluralist Commonwealth and a Community-Sustaining Economy
It is increasingly obvious that the United States faces systemic economic and political challenges.1 Income and wealth disparities have become severe and corrosive of democratic possibilities. Ecological decay deepens day by day. A record number of Americans are in poverty and full employment is nowhere on the horizon. Corporate power now dominates decision-making through lobbying, uncontrolled political contributions, and political advertising. The planet itself is threatened by global warming. The lives of millions are compromised by economic and social pain. Many of our communities are in decay.
Is there any way forward?
For the most part, serious scholars and activists have addressed the possibility of progressive change in capitalist systems from one of two perspectives. The "reform" tradition assumes that corporate institutions remain central to the design and structure of the system and that "politics" in support of various "policies" (e.g. taxation, spending, incentives, regulation) will contain, modify and control the inherent dynamic of a corporate dominated system. Liberalism in the United States and social democracy in many countries are representative of this tradition.2 The "revolutionary" tradition assumes that change can come about only if the major corporate institutions are largely eliminated or transcended, usually but not always by violence. This is often precipitated by a crisis collapse of the system, leading to one or another form of revolution. But what happens if a system neither "reforms" nor collapses in "crisis"? [End Page 1]
This is essentially where the United States finds itself today. Put slightly differently, we believe the United States is entering a potentially decades-long period characterized by a situational logic of this kind. In a context of "neither reform nor crisis collapse" very interesting strategic possibilities may sometimes be viable. Such possibilities are best understood as neither "reforms" (i.e. policies to modify and control, but not transcend corporate institutions) nor "revolution" (i.e. the overthrowing of corporate institutions), but rather as a longer term process that is best described as an evolutionary reconstruction—that is, systemic institutional transformation of the political economy that unfolds over time.
Like reform, evolutionary reconstruction involves step-by-step nonviolent change. But like revolution, evolutionary reconstruction changes the basic institutions of ownership of the economy, so that the broad public, rather than a narrow band of individuals (i.e., the "one percent"), increasingly owns more and more of the nation's productive assets.
We suggest that a growing number of openings for evolutionary reconstruction are becoming observable in many parts of the current American system, and that these openings could, if progressives seize upon them, become a potentially system-altering force over time.
One area where this logic can be seen at work is in the financial industry. At the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, for example, some kind of nationalization of the banks seemed possible. It was a moment, President Obama told banking CEOs, when his administration was "the only thing between you and the pitchforks."3 The President chose to opt for a soft bailout engineered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House Economic Adviser Lawrence Summers, but that was not the only choice available. Franklin Roosevelt attacked the "economic royalists"4 and built and mobilized his political base. Obama entered office with an already organized base and largely ignored it.
When the next financial crisis occurs (or the one after that)—and in the judgment of many experts, it may occur soon—a different political resolution with more system changing consequences may well be possible. One option has already been put on the table: In 2010, thirty-three Senators voted to break up large Wall Street investment banks that were "too big to [End Page 2] fail."5 Such a policy would not only reduce financial vulnerability; it would alter the structure of institutional power.
Nor is an effort to break up banks, even if successful, likely to be the end of the process. The modern history of the financial industry—to say nothing of anti-trust strategies in general—suggests that the big banks, even if broken up, will ultimately...