Progressive Visions: The Pluralist Commonwealth

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth

To date, I have not said much about what progressives should be striving for as opposed to what they may be against. But without articulating a direction, any kind of political strategy is attempting to fly with one wing. As this site develops, I’ll be engaging with many progressive ideas about how to make America a more democratic country–economically and politically–that can work for everyone.

One intriguing vision is provided by the work of the Democracy Collaborative and its Next System Project. Two weeks ago, I attended a book signing at Busboys and Poets in DC for Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth by Gar Alperovitz, political economist, historian, co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative and co-chair of the Next System Project.  Alperovitz studies democratic forms of economic organization as an alternative to the current system of corporate capitalism based on extraction, profit maximization, a skewed distribution of wealth, and the impoverishment–financial and spiritual–of a large majority of Americans, along with other negative results such as climate change and pollution.

In his examination of cooperatives, worker ownership, land trusts, community ownership, and public banks, among other institutions, Alperovitz sees the “pre-history” of a different, more democratic political economy, what he is calling a “pluralist commonwealth.” The book–available for free on line is written for a wide audience and arranged in short chapters, each dealing with a specific issue area. It is an invitation to people who wish to engage with the deep crisis the United States has been facing for quite some time and the possibility of creating a more just society.

What is the nature of the economic crisis? Most liberals and some progressives would agree that we have a problem in terms of employment, the unequal distribution of wealth, poverty, and the immense political power of corporations and the rich. But many are likely to see the solution as based on a series of reforms including more controls on the financial sector, increased minimum wages, health care for all, easier access to education (eg. free state or community college), immigration legislation, ending the prison industrial complex, and major efforts to stimulate the increased production of renewable energy, along with political reforms including the protection of voting rights and procedures.

This view does not question the economic and political institutions that define our current system. For Alperovitz, we are experiencing a full-on system crisis in which the major institutions of our economy and polity are failing.

“Dispossession, de-industrialization, and disinvestment have created a geography of inequality and diminished expectations, in which it is all to painfully obvious that the old solutions will be insufficient.” [p. 15]

Existing institutions cannot deliver justice and livelihoods to the majority of Americans, maintain a stable economy, and allow us to do the difficult work of transforming to a largely carbon-free energy economy. While some reforms in wages, voting, health care and so on would certainly make life more tolerable for a large number of people, they can only have limited effects. The problem is that underlying capitalist institutions, which create inequalities in wealth and therefore political influence, will continue to victimize the vast majority of our citizens. They will also work to undue any reforms as has happened over the past 35 years.

What is the “next system” then? The pluralist commonwealth is

“a way to think about a different system for the ownership of the economic institutions underlying our society, one which is constructed to secure far better outcomes than seem possible in a system characterized and determined by increasingly concentrated private wealth.” [p. 17]

Further, it is a

“pluralist vision in which multiple forms of public, private, cooperative, and common ownership are structured at different scales and in different sectors to create the kind of future we want to see.” [p. 17]

This new system rests on democratic values at all levels that include various governance institutions to ensure that the “underlying economic dynamic” is based on human and community needs, not growth and expansion. [p. 20] This is the key distinction between the pluralist commonwealth and a New Deal like set of reforms as proposed by most democrats and progressives.

Pluralist commonwealth forms include cooperatives, worker-owned enterprises, community organizations, and public banking. Successful examples of all of these alternative forms of economic enterprise and ownership can be found in the United States; sometimes in surprising places.

The state of North Dakota, for example, has a public bank that exists to promote local investments in productive activities in the state. Not having to pay exorbitant executive salaries allows the bank to pursue the mission of promoting the general welfare instead of maximizing capital and wealth. It is a model that other US states and municipalities are currently considering.

Cooperatives, of course, exist all over the place. Tens of millions of Americans, for example, are members of co-op credit unions, while many others belong to food co-ops. In addition to these well-known forms, there is a wide variety of cooperative enterprises, from bakeries to solar panel installation companies, small-scale manufacturing, and large urban farming operations . Other enterprises have experimented with different worker ownership arrangements. Although the collective presence of all of these examples is still relatively small, the diversity of forms and their sustainability in difficult economic environments suggests that they would have much greater potential in a more conducive economic policy environment.

These are just a few of the building blocks put forth as part of a pluralist commonwealth. Among the others addressed in the book are climate change, decentralization, culture, democracy, liberty, investment, markets, technology, and trade. There is a short chapter that explains how each of these plays a role in the pluralist commonwealth that may be starting to appear on the horizon.

Having followed Alperovitz and the Democracy Collaborative for some years, I find their ideas compelling and inspiring. The compounding disasters of our neo-liberal order which reached their ultimate expression in the great recession in 2008 and then the final capture of political power by the most reactionary plutocratic forces with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 pose a challenge to those who try to point out a viable alternate direction. The Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth proposes building blocks that help progressives and others envision something different that works for everyone.

Nonetheless, there is a long way to go in difficult and uncertain political circumstances.  As Alperovitz himself noted in his presentation at Busboys, the book is far less than a blueprint or a map. How such a new system might come into existence or what exactly it might look like cannot be detailed at this juncture. But with this book, we are introduced to innovative ideas and forms, as well as a new reality already sprouting up here and there that activists and thinkers should be taking a close look at.

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