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The Values of the Pluralist Commonwealth

From: The Good Society
Volume 15, Number 3, 2006
pp. 45-50 | 10.1353/gso.2008.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

1. A Source of Inspiration

Gar Alperovitz's America Beyond Capitalism is an inspiring book. For although Alperovitz paints a disturbing picture of America's failure to live up to its values, he provides inspiration for the way forward. In his book, Alperovitz describes a workable alternative to existing institutional arrangements; he terms this alternative the "Pluralist Commonwealth." He describes elements of this alternative that are already in place and outlines strategies for realizing this alternative more fully. At the same time, the Pluralist Commonwealth remains firmly grounded in the values that existing institutional arrangements have failed to realize. America's failure to live up to its values may be great, but it is not too late to address that failure. According to Alperovitz, realizing those values is still within reach. This makes his book inspiring.

For theorists, there is a second sense in which the book is inspiring. The book manages to engage theoretical debates while addressing contemporary political and economic issues. The book is not just about applying a theory; the book does not simply work out what some theory would prescribe for political and economic arrangements. Nor is the book solely about the strategy for implementing the prescription of that theory. The book is also an argument about the content of that theory.

These two senses in which America Beyond Capitalism inspires are nicely reflected in contributions to this symposium. In his essay, Waheed Hussain agues that although the Pluralist Commonwealth is a move in the right direction, more needs to be done to move us closer to realizing the ideals that it is meant to embody. As part of his essay, Thad Williamson describes the book's contributions to theoretical debates about democracy and distributive justice. In this essay, I would like to focus on a third sense in which I take it that a book like America Beyond Capitalism can be inspiring.

This third sense of inspiration concerns the values that the Pluralist Commonwealth is meant to realize. As noted above, part of what makes America Beyond Capitalism inspiring is that it presents a workable alternative to existing institutional arrangements that have failed to realize the values that Alperovitz takes to be central to American thought. There is inspiration in knowing that the realization of these values is feasible. However, if the feasibility of the Pluralist Commonwealth is to inspire reform, the values to be realized must themselves be sources of inspiration for reform.

In this essay, I examine the case for grounding reform in the three values the Pluralist Commonwealth aims to realize: equality, liberty, and democracy. In doing so, I aim to highlight what I take to be distinctive about the Pluralist Commonwealth as a proposal for reform, and in turn, discuss the ways in which the values it is meant to realize might serve as sources of inspiration for reform.

2. Democracy

Alperovitz opens America Beyond Capitalism by asking how can we detect when a society is in trouble. He answers that it is time to pay attention when "people begin to lose belief in things that once mattered profoundly—like the most important values that have given meaning to American history from the time of the Declaration of Independence: equality, liberty, and democracy."

Alperovitz envisions the Pluralist Commonwealth as a way to restore people's faith in those values. The alternative is termed "pluralist" in order "to emphasize the priority given to democratic diversity and individual liberty." The alternative is described as a "commonwealth" in order "to underscore the centrality of new public and quasi-public wealth-holding institutions that take on ever greater power on behalf of the community of the nation as a whole."

The importance of democracy becomes clear when one considers the centrality of these new wealth-holding institutions along with the proposed changes in the ownership of productive assets more generally. The Pluralist Commonwealth calls for changes in the institutional arrangements governing the ownership and control of productive assets at three levels.

At the national level, the proposal calls for a "Public Trust" to hold and oversee the investment of productive assets in trust for members of society as a whole. The Public Trust would function...



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