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Prehistory of the Next American Revolution

What now? A new Revolution?

If we are to counter the dangers both of corporate domination and of traditional forms of socialist statism, decentralization is essential—both of economic institutions and of political structure. We are at a point in our nation’s history that could, decades from now, be taught as the prehistory of the next American Revolution.

With that in mind, what would the “next system” look like? In his 2014 book What Then Must We Do?, author Gar Alperovitz made the case that the way forward may be a mix of decentralized local and state , locally run and democratically owned businesses. And, it’ll matter less about which political party is in power, but how the American people organize themselves around core concepts of self-reliance, liberty, and equality.


History has a way of surprising us, especially in times when serious change seems impossible. The modern civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, even the modern conservative movement (which was modest in the early postwar era), all rose to major power without benefit of pundit prediction. Indeed, the success of all these movements was quite contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time, which held that nothing serious could change.

Nor did anyone predict the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East, or the radical shifts in power that have overthrown conservative and authoritarian governments throughout Latin America in the last two decades. Farther back, how many people in 1989 predicted that the Berlin Wall would fall, or that within two years the Soviet Union would dissolve, or that within five years apartheid would finally end in South Africa?

The American Revolution itself stands as a reminder that a small and totally outgunned group of determined people could defeat the then most powerful empire in the world.

I am no utopian; I am a historian and political economist. I am cautious about predictions of inevitability—including the assumed inevitability, dictated from on high, that nothing fundamental can ever change.

It is possible—indeed, perhaps likely—that at some point the pain, tensions, loss of belief, and anger building up in America will lead to something far more explosive and transformative than business-as-usual politics. And it is our responsibility—yours and mine and other Americans’—in advance of such a time to openly consider what might make sense, how to proceed, and what our role in the matter might be.

The place to begin is with the profound challenge now confronting us in connection with the truly fundamental American values—equality, liberty, and democracy; and with the ongoing loss of belief in the corporate system’s capacity to achieve and nurture these values, not to mention those involving global sustainability. I am not talking, simply, about the need to address social and economic and climate change pain, as important as they are. I am talking about addressing something much deeper.

A nation that proclaims a creed based on centrally important values but continues to violate them in practice is setting itself up for challenges much more serious than the problems of “normal” politics. If the trends continue to decay—and there is every reason to believe that most, in fact, are likely to—we will clearly be entering what social scientists term a “legitimation crisis”: a time when the values that give legitimacy to the system no longer can, in fact, be achieved by the system.

The late Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider, cautious researchers studying the loss of belief in American institutions during the 1980s at a time even before the economic and social pain had begun to deepen, concluded:

The situation is much more brittle than it was at the end of the 1920s, just before the Great Depression, or in 1965, immediately preceding the unrest occasioned by the Vietnam War and the outbreak of racial tension . . . The outcome could very well be substantial support for movements seeking to change the system in a fundamental way.1

Their conclusion, though premature, stands as a warning—and a challenge—to our own time. At minimum it is another reminder of the importance of considering strategies beyond the usual political routes to change—an “Option Six,” if you like.

Put another way, the deepening difficulties also suggest the possibility that we may now be well into the prehistory of the next American revolution, that Option Six may ultimately involve longer-term changes much greater than many have contemplated. It is never possible to know in advance what may or may not occur. Nonetheless, such a time is a time when it is also our responsibility to begin to consider the fundamental question of how a “next system” might and should be organized, a time to begin to explore new ways to achieve the great American values that can no longer be achieved by the dying system.

Understood in this larger perspective, the various efforts under way that offer the possibility of democratizing the ownership of wealth may not only help bolster traditional progressive political strategy, but also help lay down critical building blocks for something far more fundamental.

Which also means it is time to begin to get serious about the question: If you don’t like corporate capitalism and you don’t like state socialism, what do you want? It is time to throw off the blinders that suggest we must always and forever be constrained by systemic alternatives whose main lines of development can be traced back more than a hundred years—indeed, far longer back in historical time. That the question may be of more than passing interest is also suggested by the fact that the words capitalism and socialism were the most-looked-up words in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary in 2012.2

A good way to start answering the question is to confront the profound challenge of community, and its practical requirements and systemic implications. The institutional requirements of community pose fundamental issues that neither corporate capitalism nor state socialism ever took seriously. The critical point of departure is the question: Can you ever have Democracy with a big D in any system if you don’t have democracy with a small d in the actual experience and everyday community life of ordinary everyday citizens?

Especially at a time like ours when corporate power and money dominate?

I’m talking about genuine democracy, not just voting. Real participation, the kind political theorist Benjamin Barber calls “strong democracy.” The kind where people not only react to choices handed down from on high, yea or nay, but actively engage, innovate, create options—and also decide among them.

There are increasing numbers of experiments with what this means—some that we’ve visited in earlier chapters, and many others in the United States and around the world that point to a new direction, building from the bottom up. In such efforts the outlines of a very different, more vital, more engaged democracy for the next system are beginning to be forged, developed, expanded—starting in specific communities.

Just to dig a bit deeper into the difference between defining our values and vision and creating a serious systemic design capable of achieving and sustaining them, here’s a second challenge:

You can’t have a genuine experience of meaningful local democracy if communities are continually disrupted, the people moved hither and yon, and municipal government so dependent on corporate help that there is no room for any serious form of democratic choice.

Accordingly, if the next system takes community and democracy from the ground up seriously, it will have to deal with stabilizing the local economies of our communities.

I remind you: We are not “merely” talking about nurturing democratic community practice; we are talking about community practice as the basis of fundamental experiences of critical importance to the nation as a whole and of democracy in general. The answer to the question “Can you have genuine Democracy with a big D in a continental nation if its citizens have little genuine experience of democracy with a small d in their own lives?” is simple: No.

And turning this around requires structural and institutional support to reorganize how wealth is owned and controlled.

WTMWDBeyond this, and again critically, if we are to counter the dangers both of corporate domination and of traditional forms of socialist statism, decentralization is essential—both of economic institutions and of political structure.

I need to stop the flow here to sharpen a critical point: It is not enough to urge such change, even to experiment with it, though both are important. A systemic challenge goes deeper, much deeper, and it brings us back full circle to who controls wealth—and for more than one reason.

First, anyone who has considered the matter for more than five minutes knows that money influences elections big-time, that the distribution of power is intimately related to the distribution of income and wealth, and that democracy remains superficial and essentially compromised so long as this is so. But the hard place in the argument about how to achieve real change, the place that underscores the need for systemic change rather than mere policy and political change, is that the old system, the one dominated by corporations with the hope that traditional politics can significantly alter the distribution of income and wealth (hence democracy!), no longer can achieve such change.

Which means that either the next system will be built upon different ways to organize the ownership of wealth, or the ongoing trends will continue (with or without minor adjustments around the edges).

Another way to say this is that there is a difference between an abstract vision of democratic practice and the value of democracy, on the one hand, and what is best termed a systemic design capable of achieving and sustaining that vision and that value, on the other.

Which means, again: If you don’t like state socialism and you don’t like corporate capitalism, what do you want?

And if you aren’t willing to answer that question, or even engage it, why should we listen to your concerns about the failings of the current system?

There are also important questions of function: Manufacturing involves different issues than dealing with land use or finance, health care, and many other city, state, and national level political economic matters.

I won’t go further with the challenge of community and the challenge of genuine democracy at this point. However, if you care about these matters, come on in: Get in the game. It is time (in this possible prehistory of the next American revolution) to get serious about systemic design. Especially, again, if you don’t like corporate capitalism and you don’t like state socialism.

Like a picture slowly developing in a photographer’s darkroom, the potential elements of a new system, of something meaningful and very American, are beginning to emerge.

At the same time, three recent national surveys have found Americans under the age of thirty—the people who will build the next system—largely indifferent as to whether capitalism or socialism is better, and if anything slightly more favorable to the latter term.

What confronting the possibility that we are entering the prehistory of the next American revolution offers is a chance to get serious about thinking through what we really want, and this itself may help us clarify new options for the long haul.

It is ultimately also likely to offer us new ways to deal with others around the world. It is unlikely that we will be able to significantly alter ongoing policies that do and do not contribute to global peace and the development of other nations until we become a different community ourselves, until the power structure changes, until we change.

We may also gain perspective another way. America is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Over the course of the twentieth century alone, real income per capita (adjusted for inflation) increased roughly sevenfold in the United States. As we have seen, so wealthy is our nation that were income divided equally today, all families of four would receive almost $200,000. (Alternatively, of course, the workweek could be cut in half, with family income reduced on average to $100,000—roughly two times current median family income.)

We do not know the course of future change. It will almost certainly be determined by the direction taken by two powerful trends. On the one hand, the long trends of technological change, if continued, may be promising. Indeed, if ongoing technological change continues to sustain the previous century-long sevenfold-increase trend, potential real (inflation-adjusted) income for families of four could in theory exceed $1 million per family (or, more likely, a radical reduction in the workweek).

The other trend involves resource limits, and it is a powerfully constraining trend, especially with regard to energy, but also many other things globally (including basic grains, water, fisheries, and arable land). All this will also be impacted by global population growth—or its reduction, as is happening now throughout Europe and Russia, another unknown. And, again, also by specific technologies that may potentially open new directions in certain areas, especially with regard to energy, but also, at this point, to an unknown extent.

What is striking is that in either case, the reconstruction of an American community is clearly the precondition for a decent and meaningful outcome: either to build forward in hopeful new ways on the basis of technological change, or, critically, to work together to manage, as a community, the challenge of resource constraints.

Finally, a place to end and a place to begin—and maybe to help us remember who, in fact, touched off the explosions that helped fuel the modern civil rights, feminist, gay rights, and other movements, to say nothing of the long history of work to make American democracy meaningful that goes back to before the Revolution itself.

As the late Margaret Meade famously reminded us, we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And, of course, everything done in the new direction and to establish the fundaments of a new American community is positive no matter what.


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