- There is No Alternative to Forging an Alternative:On Gar Alperovitz’s America Beyond Capitalism
I can make no pretense about being objective regarding this book. A disclaimer: I worked for nearly four years in the 1990s as a researcher on an earlier draft of the book, and also reviewed and commented on the manuscript of America Beyond Capitalism (ABC) as it approached publication several years later. In between, I co-authored a book with Gar Alperovitz (and David Imbroscio), Making a Place for Community, whose themes are closely connected to those of ABC.
These facts my be disadvantageous from the standpoint of impartiality, but they confer another kind of advantage which may be useful for the purposes of this essay: I have been living with the core ideas of ABC for some 15 years, long enough time to grasp not only the logic of the ideas but also to assess the usefulness of Alperovitz's analytical framework in helping to understand the dynamics of American politics.
I will begin, however, with a short (and incomplete) list of the varied contributions of ABC.
ABC and Democratic Theory
First, and perhaps most fundamentally, ABC is a contribution to democratic theory in its own right. As a work of critique, ABC stresses the incompatibility between the norms of democratic self-rule and the large-scale private corporation, a theme which academic theorists have still yet to come to terms with. (Sheldon Wolin's expanded edition of Politics and Vision is an important exception.)
In terms of constructive democratic theory, Alperovitz demands that we pay attention to the oft-neglected question of scale, and to the incompatibility between continental-sized systems and meaningful participatory democracy. It is on this point, perhaps more than any other, that Alperovitz's vision conflicts with mainstream New Deal liberalism as well as more radical visions that envision a dramatically strengthened federal government. Alperovitz argues, persuasively in my view, both that a regionalized approach to dramatic social reform has a greater likelihood of winning assent from an American populace that remains skeptical of large-scale federal programs, and that regionalizing many important governmental functions (particularly economic planning) makes more sense on its own terms than attempting to force one-size-fits-all programs on a diverse nation.
It can be fairly stated that Alperovitz does not fully answer the question of how exactly decentralization of significant government power might take place, or what the best way to re-configure American federalism might look like. But he has put on the intellectual table an issue which almost no contemporary democratic theorist apart from Robert Dahl has accorded the fundamental importance it deserves. And, implicit in ABC is the notion that Alperovitz doesn't need to provide a detailed account of how such progressive decentralization might take place; the logic impelling states and regions to more aggressive policy actions is so compelling, he suggests, that movement in this direction over the next quarter century is all but inevitable.
Another neglected issue Alperovitz injects into the debate about democratic theory is that of time—in particular, time for citizenship. Discussion of free time and its distribution has largely been the province of economists, some sociologists and others (such as Robert Putnam) concerned with the relationship between time and social capital formation, and of feminist writers concerned with continuing inequities within the household. Alperovitz pushes further to make the point that if we are serious about expanded participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, or any other form of self-governance which requires a larger number of citizens to take a more active role in political affairs, we must provide the time to make that a realistic possibility.
In this light, concerns raised by Juliet Schor and others about the failure of our economic system to convert continued economic growth into greater free time for ordinary people take on new urgency. Moreover, as Alperovitz shows, providing greater time should not be seen simply as a luxury item, or only as a vehicle for expanding personal freedom (though it is that as well), but as an intrinsic and indispensable part of not only the "Pluralist Commonwealth" model but any reform vision that contemplates...