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  • America Beyond Capitalism : Emerging Context and Key Issues
  • Gar Alperovitz (bio)

Many of the thoughtful issues raised by Hsieh, Hussein, Ollman and Williamson concern problems of political-economic context and possibility, on the one hand; and, on the other, of larger systemic goals and outcomes. Although my basic position on these points is stated in America Beyond Capitalism, the book contains only a rather short summation of a much larger argument, especially in connection with context. 1 This will be presented at length in another volume now in progress. However, a slightly expanded statement may help sharpen the central questions which must be confronted:

ABC holds that we face a long term (and unusually structured) systemic crisis, not simply a political crisis. It argues that the emerging era is one in which truly fundamental values—equality, liberty, meaningful democracy, ecological sustainability—are all increasingly being thwarted by real world practices. Given the emerging constraints on traditional politics, it suggests, both liberal reform and genuine conservatism are likely to continue to falter. In addition to growing social and economic pain, accordingly, we are entering a long term period in which the classic elements of a legitimation crisis may well be slowly beginning to emerge.

One of the critical points to grasp is that the American labor movement is in the process not simply of decline, but of radical decline. At its peak in the mid-1950s unions represented just over 35% of the workforce. They now represent a little over 12% nationwide; and a mere 7.2% in the private sector. The overall trend is down. This (along with America's unusual racial and ethnic divisions) is one of the most important reasons why the book judges that many social-democratic proposals like those urged by Hussein based on European precedents are extremely unlikely to be achieved in more than marginal ways in the United States. 2 I agree with Williamson here: Although I would welcome whatever can be done, the traditional hope of reforming capitalism following the best welfare state and corporatist precedents is simply not likely to be realized.

The book's main argument also rests on the judgment that we do not face a crisis which can be described in any easily recognized 'classical' form: The system may not be capable of major reform; but it is also unlikely to collapse. (Among other things, government now stabilizes roughly 30% of the economy; far more, given economic multipliers.) What we are beginning to experience, ABC suggests, is a process of slowly increasing decay, one in which attempts at reform do achieve occasional gains, but in which long trends of growing inequality, failing democratic accountability, family instability, deepening and unchanging poverty, ecological degradation, greater invasions of liberty (and long trends of growing imprisonment, especially of minorities)—all these continue to slowly and quietly challenge belief in the moral integrity of the overall system and its governing elites. Surveys demonstrate that whereas thirty years ago three out of four believed the government does what the citizens wish, now roughly three out of four believe it does what the rich, the corporations, and the special interests urge.

It is quite possible, ABC suggests, that a long term process of occasional gain, large-order stalemate and failing belief will simply mean the continuation of long term decay: Rome declined. Period.

It is also possible that domestic violence, terrorism, or both will lead to repression and some form of fascism. On the other hand, ABC notes, Chile survived Pincochet, and the critical questions all still remain: First, might there be ways to build forward a process of political change aimed at progressive values in these very constrained circumstances? (And what might its chief characteristics be, given the blockages facing traditional approaches?) Second, and importantly, what long term structural arrangements—beyond the current faltering arrangements—might one day hope to realize and sustain the key values? Finally, how do these two questions relate to one another?

Let us focus on the second question first: The central intellectual problem at the heart of ABC is whether it is feasible even in theory to develop an institutional architecture which might allow for true democratic control of the...


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pp. 51-56
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