Gar Alperovitz

As a systems thinker focused on sustainability, this is my favourite book right now. In order to democratize wealth and build community-sustaining economies, nothing short of system change is required. Alperovitz spends most of the book explaining why that’s so and contrasting system change with political movements. The following quote, originally from a US presidential adviser, provides an apt summary: “working within the system will not succeed in the end when what is needed is transformative change within the system itself.” But isn’t the system beyond our control? It’s difficult, surely, to translate the lofty goal of system change into a coherent and compelling action plan for citizens, but this is what Alperovitz has done.


Reclaiming Democracy Key for Sustainability

The impetus to question the system is the triple crisis: climate chaos, steadily rising inequality and steadily eroding feelings of community. If we had the kind of democracy Alperovitz envisions, and not this corporate-dominated model, we wouldn’t have these crises. Citizens did vote in the current leadership but Alperovitz quotes Harvard professor Jane Mansbridge: “Without an extensive program of decentralization and workplace democracy, few people are likely to have the political experiences necessary for understanding their interests.” Canadians will continue to vote against their own interests until they become directly involved with building community-sustaining economies.

The state democracy means little, Alperovitz says, if people aren’t participating in the governance of their workplaces and their communities. We need practice, day to day, with democracy. Worker-owned businesses, co-ops, credit unions and co-working spaces for entrepreneurs provide opportunities for shaping the local economic landscape and keeping money circulating between organizations focused on prosperity, not growth. Higher levels of politics will fall in line once we purposefully re-design municipal economic development strategies. This election year, we can shed our little-examined and ill-advised allegiance to globalization. Alperovitz explains how re-localizing economies can capture greater revenues for municipalities, create more jobs and authenticate all the talk about sustainability.

Taking the Corporate out of Corporate Social Responsibility

Since I’m a sustainability person, you’d be forgiven if you assumed I’m focused on environmental issues. However, systems thinkers look for leverage points to create the changes they seek. The dominant economic philosophy, corporate-dominated capitalism, is what has to change if we’re serious about social and ecological justice. We’ve tried long enough to know sustainability isn’t possible in corporate-dominated democracies; climate chaos, inequality and unemployment are worsening.

Citizen participation in local economic planning provokes new solutions to environmental and social problems; the solution-multiplier is you and I running the show, starting with our workplaces, our credit unions and our municipal governments. Fed up with the big banks’ disregard for their fate, in a 90-day period in 2012, 5.6 million Americans moved their money to credit unions. Such decentralization of power is required to create lasting jobs, rebuild an authentic sense of community and ensure healthy local environments. The biggest challenge to this decentralization is that participation isn’t our habit; we’re used to paternalistic governance. Changing the system and democratizing wealth means unlearning the tendency to look outside ourselves for answers.

Beyond the Capitalist-Socialist Dichotomy

Corporate capitalists still belittle socialists but the reality is that they rely on corporate welfare whenever effects of the free market threaten to destabilize the inherently unstable monopolies. We’ve never seen truly free markets; governments prop up corporations, even when it’s not in their citizens’ best interests. Alperovitz points out a third way that bypasses the pitfalls of capitalism and socialism. He produces reams of research to support the idea that the most efficient economies are characterized by the following institutions: worker-owned private enterprise, locally owned utilities and de-privatized essential services.

These institutions and others that democratize wealth are part of the evolutionary reconstruction of the economy that’s already underway. But individually or even taken together, they cannot do the job without a coherent, new systemic design such as Alperovitz and his colleagues propose. He even points out implications for the global peace and development agendas saying we have nothing to offer others until we address power imbalances at home.

Economic Planning that Includes Diverse Worldviews

My only real criticism is the omission of some issues that could dovetail with Alperovitz’s vision. The ultimate elephant in the room, to me, is that (almost) everyone reading this has a cushy life in a nation that continually, systematically marginalizes Indigenous peoples. Since we’re talking about massive economic re-structuring, let’s make space for real diversity: worldview diversity. I recently spent a day supporting the Mushkegowuk who were walking to Ottawa, from James Bay. They want system change but, given their worldview, it’s expressed differently: they want to share the guidance they receive from their ancestors. Their critical message gets lost in translation, proving how colonialist we still are. Can we involve Indigenous grandmothers, North America’s traditional leaders, in economic planning?

If we did involve them we’d inevitably get back to a broader definition of economics. Economic educator Emily Kawano explains that “while popular assumption is that capitalism is our primary economy, deeper reflection reveals that more value is generated and exchanged daily outside the capitalist system. Activities like care giving, co-ops, DIY, open source, time banks, CSAs, co-housing, fair trade, and many more, are included in the “big tent” of the Solidarity Economy.” Economics isn’t just about money! It’s about resources being moved around so that needs are met. This is critical in our conversations about new measurements of well-being; we must measure resources saved, time saved, diversity enabled, happiness, health and community cohesion. So my second quibble with Alperovitz is that he doesn’t clearly link his ideas to the emerging collaborative economy that’s also democratizing wealth nor the non-monetized, gendered carework that’s still awaiting acknowledgement.

What Then Must We Do?

Alperovitz isn’t championing reform or revolution but an evolutionary reconstruction of the economy. We, you and I, can bring the system back under our control and become proficient with democracy. This is political but it needn’t be divisive; partisanship has no place here. In fact, civility and inclusion form the glue of the new system. So, can you support or become a municipal leader focused on relocalization of the economy? Can your workplace and your neighbourhood organization unite around a vision for a community-sustaining economy? Can your workplace be owned by its workers? Share your response to Alperovitz’s ideas and keep us up to date on how you’re changing the system.

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Natalie Robinson

Natalie Robinson has an MA in Environmental Education and Communication and is the Director of Educational Design for Hopefield Sustainability.

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