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  • America Beyond Capitalism:A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives
  • Bertell Ollman (bio)

Gar Alperovitz's book, America Beyond Capitalism, is of great importance to socialists (despite his casual dismissal of socialism, his equally off-hand use of the Soviet Union to represent the dangers of socialist planning, and his unwillingness to traffic in such stock socialist categories as "capital accumulation," "class," "class interests," "class consciousness," and "class struggle." So, what gives?

One of Marx's greatest achievements in Capital was to show that capitalists, understood as the owners of the means of production, do not make a necessary "material" contribution to the production of wealth, and, therefore, that production can go on without them. We do not need them, so there is no good reason that they should take—that we should allow them to take—any of the wealth, power and status that goes with owning capital. Marx arrives at this conclusion through a detailed analysis of what goes on in the production process in capitalist society. Alperovitz makes the very same point that Marx does, but whereas Marx arrives at it theoretically, Alperovitz arrives at it empirically by marshaling a warehouse full of instances in the U.S. where production (and distribution and exchange) goes on without capitalists. There are few readers who won't be surprised by how often this happens or by the huge numbers of people involved as workers and consumers with this process, but, as we learn, even most of them do not know how widespread is the development of which they are part. No one who reads this book will ever look at the American capitalist economy in quite the same way, and for that we all owe its author a hearty vote of thanks. It is true that Alperovitz is not ready to draw—at least explicitly—the obvious conclusion from all this (his own proposals for reform are rather modest), but his argument runs out in front of him, and many of his readers will be drawn to ask, "Why do we need the capitalists at all?"

I suspect that most of the capitalists and their liberal and conservative apologists, who are Alperovitz's main targeted audience, will recognize the dangers to them in this simple question, and will reject the new brand of economics that he would have them adopt. Workers, on the other hand, all kinds of workers, would find most of Alperovitz's account very attractive, including the $64 question regarding the need for any capitalists to which it unerringly leads. Too bad these workers were not Alperovitz's main targeted audience, but, then, that might have required less talk about ideals and values, and more talk about class, class interests, class struggle, and socialism.

There is a second way in which America Beyond Capitalism is of great importance to socialists, and this has to do with the glimpse it offers us of life beyond capitalism. Alperovitz calls the impressive variety of case studies he has assembled "precedents." My preferred label for them is "germs" (Marx's term) or "seeds" of socialism. By calling them "precedents," Alperovitz seems to suggest that on the whole cooperative and other forms of public ownership have worked quite well in the U.S. and that there is nothing, nothing substantial in any case, to keep the rest of the economy from developing in the same way. There is, of course, a lot of truth in the first claim. The size and relative success of the non-capitalist sector of our economy is (for obvious reasons) one of the best kept secrets in America, and Alperovitz deserves a lot of credit for providing us with such a clear and detailed account of it.

Yet, much of what is at least equally important is largely missing from Alperovitz's account, and this includes most of the essential context for understanding and evaluating what he does put in the book. Where are, for example, the effects of competition between the enterprises in a market economy, especially in a global market economy (and not just on prices, employment, compensation and conditions of work but to people's lives and ways of thinking and feeling...


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pp. 28-30
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