Why We Need a Next System — And How to Get There

Over the past 10 years, Gar Alperovitz has played a central role in creating the quiet revolution of on-the-ground models and experiments of economic democracy. He’s a practical visionary who’s working to advance public ownership, community and worker-owned businesses and cooperatives, and intergenerational community wealth creation. And he has the experience to add weight to his powerful message and mission: Alperovitz co-founded The Democracy Collaborative in 2000, followed by the Next System Project, of which he’s co-chair. He has operated on the frontlines of real world politics, running political campaigns, House and Senate staffs, and policy planning in the state department and has a distinguished career as a historian, political economist, and author — most recently of Principles for a Pluralist Commonwealth.

In his 2018 Bioneers keynote address, titled “Why We Need a Next System,” Alperovitz discusses his work with the Next System Project, breakthrough models for community-based political-economic development, and how we can begin to build and work toward the systemic change we need to save both democracy and the planet.
Following is a full-text version of Gar Alperovitz’s keynote address. Watch the full video here.

View more keynotes, transcripts, and more from the 2018 Bioneers Conference.

Gar Alperovitz:

The system is failing all around us.

Our infrastructure is falling apart, our jails are full and can’t hold more people, our young people are burdened with a trillion dollars in student debt. The temperature of the Earth is starting to rise. In a country like the United States, the fact that anywhere from 45 to 50 million people are hungry — we’re in a heap of trouble.

We can’t go on like this. We can’t keep moving toward climate catastrophe, nuclear war, the systems of inequality, poverty, famine. There is a systems problem. It’s time to talk about alternatives. It’s time to talk about what’s next. We need to be aspirational and be clear about the vision of the world that we want.

As systems fail, individual and community creativity explodes, and that’s what we have seen. People in this country are solving the problems themselves. They’re coming up with new models and strategies, and within those models and strategies are the kernels of a systemic way to move forward. Land trusts, cooperatively owned businesses, sustainable energy, state-owned banks, urban gardening, urban farming — these small successes taken together are a proof of concept that this can happen on a larger scale.

We’re compelled to search for alternatives, not just analytically but in how we live and in what we do, how we organize our daily lives. And that has tremendous potential. All bets are off in terms of our previous thinking, our ways of thinking about economy and our ways of thinking about politics have proven an abject and utter failure. The good news is we have no choice but to adopt revolutionary thinking.

How We Can Change the System

We can do better. We can build a better system. That’s not impossible. We can do it, collectively, neighborhood by neighborhood, step by step.

If there’s one thing I’d like to do, it’s to take this abstract idea — the system — and bring it down to, “What is it I can do tomorrow to change the system?” The task in this period, in my view, is to lay down an irreversible foundation when it comes to projects, organizing, politics, etc., that establishes the basis for a transformation.

My heroes are the Civil Rights workers in Mississippi in the 1930s. We don’t know many of their names. They laid the foundation for the 1960s. That is where I think we are, and to see ourselves in that role is empowering.

Everybody knows we live in something called corporate capitalism. That means there’s extreme concentration of wealth ownership. The top 400 people have more wealth than the bottom half this society — that’s 150 million, 160 million people. There is extraordinary income inequality and ecological damage. We know all about this. But the systemic problem is how you organize an advanced system so that you can reverse these trends with the institutions moving with you rather than against you.

Who are the dominant institutions? In the Medieval times it was the church, and the Medieval lords had the lands and the power. In the modern corporate system, the people who own the corporations have the money and the power, and overwhelmingly influence politics. In the 1960s I worked in the Senate with Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, and there still was a countervailing balance to corporate power, particularly on environmental issues. The labor movement was part of that, and Gaylord Nelson was a labor lawyer. He depended on having labor support in order to do environmental work.

Labor unions in the United States have collapsed from 34% of the labor force down to 6%. There is an overwhelming attack by conservatives and corporate leaders to drive it down further. Labor is becoming a weak force in politics, which means that if Gaylord Nelson were alive today, he probably couldn’t be elected, and he probably couldn’t do his environmental work. hat is one way of thinking about our current systemic design — corporate domination of the main sectors, countervailed and counterbalanced by another system.

By contrast, the state socialist system kept all of the ownership in the state, and all of the power concentrated at the top. The ecological harm and damage to human rights and more proved that design was overwhelmingly negative.

I want you to think about design. What is the nature of the design that you would actually want to live in? Who would own things? Where would the power come from? Would it be an expansionary system? Corporations have to expand. They’ve got to keep reporting more profits, and that has environmental implications for big corporations. So what is the nature of the design? What would it look like in the ideal? How do we get from here to there?

That’s the nature of this program we call the Next System Project. At one level, we have a major debate going on amongst theorists and academics and activists on the design of different systems. But if you want to actually change the system, get it out of the abstraction of the academics. There is a lot there that can be built on and worked on.

One way to start is with projects. We’ve worked a lot on the Evergreen Cooperatives Project in Cleveland, Ohio. This is in a very poor neighborhood — 40,000 people, mostly black, the average unemployment is 20%, family income averages $20,000 a year. In the middle of that neighborhood is the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, and University hospitals. All three of those institutions have a lot of taxpayer dollars in them — Medicare, Medicaid, education money. They buy a lot of things just to exist, and they can’t move. They are so-called “anchored” because there is a huge investment of capital in those buildings and facilities. This is a technical term these days — anchor institutions.

One of the designs that we’ve developed is using the purchasing power of these big institutions and focusing it on this community to establish a community-wide nonprofit corporation to benefit and reflect the community’s interest as a whole. What is interesting about it is that it begins with the principle of community — not corporation, not state socialism — but local community, and it has attached to it another idea: worker ownership. That is a systemic design in miniature.

Now I’m going to use a dirty word. It also has a planning system. Public money in these big institutions focusing downward to help stabilize the community is a planning system. It’s not simply the market. It may be checked by the market. The market forces may make these guys a little more competitive. That’s fine. But it’s stabilized that way.

There are three major industries in the Cleveland model. Evergreen Cooperative Laundry is probably the most ecologically advanced industrial scale laundry in the Midwest, possibly in the nation, employing 300 workers. It also has a large greenhouse, Green City Growers, producing something like 4,000 heads of lettuce a month. Then there’s Evergreen Energy Solutions, the most advanced solar installation company in the Midwest which is also a worker-owned company attached to this community complex.

What you see there has been picked up in Preston, England by the Labor Party. Preston has advanced that whole idea, it’s become the policy of the Labor Party, and is now being picked up in other European countries. It started in Madrid, where they said, “Our community is the starting point of how we build a system.”

That’s a different design. It’s not corporations, and it’s not state socialism, and it’s not small business. It privileges community and institutionalizes it somehow, in the Evergreen model via a nonprofit corporation. In the case of Preston, the city government — which is very like a corporation — makes that the centerpiece of the design and then builds out from there. It says we want to build community. If you don’t have community, you don’t solve a lot of problems, including ecological problems.

This is something very rarely talked about in this country, but it needs to be faced directly. This is a continental scale system. It is literally an empire, internally. With roughly 3,000 miles coast to coast with 340 million people — how do we have participatory democracy?

It’s a system that is gargantuan, and just as it was in the 1920s and 30s, the question of scale itself is very important today. To the extent that you believe the system must be highly centralized, you lose participatory democracy. But if you go the other direction, you lose the benefits of scale. So it is a real problem, not a phony problem.

Addressing Issues at Home

Where might you see the idea of dealing with the scale problem thoughtfully and intelligently in the United States? By way of comparison, just let me mention to you how big the U.S. is. You can drop Germany into Montana. You can drop France easily into Texas. This is a very big empire, internally. If you think about where the fault lines may occur and where the debate might begin for the longer term redemocratization of America, California is an obvious target.

We may learn something from the last election, but California is so far advanced in many ways, particularly on environmental issues, on high-speed rail and on use of the public facilities. There is the possibility of beginning to develop over time a realistic, practical vision of how we decentralize as we move the population from 350 million to 400 and 450 million. It is inevitable that we have to decentralize. This is the most interesting part of the country where we could actually begin that experimentation.

So we’re beginning to think about systems, not as abstract things for an academic debate, but in practical terms: How would you actually begin practically to build on the existing models?

One of the most interesting things that’s happening around the country, and it’s happening here in California particularly, is that the idea of building banks that are public banks.

It draws on the Bank of North Dakota, which is currently one of the most conservative states in the country. It also has the most radical banking system in the country, which derives from the people who built it 100 years ago. The conservatives kept it because it’s so good. The small businessmen, the farmers, the co-ops — everyone likes the Bank of North Dakota and it’s become a model around the country. The last time I looked, there are maybe 15 different places where people are trying to set them up.

Some of them are going to work and some of them are not, but what is important about this is that somebody is actually looking at one of the central institutions of the system – the banking system – and saying, “Why could this not be made much more responsive to the public by changing the ownership and control?”

I don’t think people actually look in the mirror and say, “I could actually participate in changing the system.” It’s a hard confront. Who, me? Who else?

You can start by looking at concrete elements of the system. A system, after all, only is a lot of elements pasted together in a particular design. This one gives predominance to the large corporation and to the money behind it, so they overwhelmingly run the game now in politics. But if you built up a mosaic of alternative institutions and a movement — environmental, political, cultural, feminist, etc. — that actually began to understand that the way to make progress on all of these things is going to require us to change the powerful institutions that we are confronted with, then it becomes less abstract, less academic. Don’t make the system problem an academic problem, but see it as something that is our problem. We could do this if we wanted to, like those people in the 1930s in Mississippi.

We not only need to build a vision of a different kind of system design, and a pathway and personal roles, but on the way we need to think about how we build political economic power — institutional power, like the labor movement did to support Gaylord Nelson so he could do environmental work. What is interesting about the kinds of things that are happening around the country — the Cleveland model, the Evergreen model, etc. — is that they also become places where you can build political and institutional power, even as you’re laying groundwork for a larger systemic vision.

So if you take these abstractions seriously, and then break them down, you can begin to see pathways forward in many parts of the country.

I want to leave you with this one message: Bring system design down from the clouds and think about it almost like a recipe that you’ve decided to change or make from scratch. Begin to think, “It’s not too big for me.” Then do two things: Call a bunch of friends and start reading about this and talking about what you can do tomorrow to support each other.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.