The American system of political economy is in a state of crisis from which it will neither collapse nor quickly recover. In the resulting stagnation, writes Gar Alperovitz, a very significant process of radical reawakening is quietly underway.
Part of our series of short contributions from writers and activists looking to the year ahead.
My attention in the new year is focused on the U.S., which is in a highly unusual state of crisis. On the one hand, it is unlikely to totally collapse. On the other, it is unable—not least because of the long-term radical decline in union density—to mobilize traditional progressive solutions for reforming the system. The result is decay: growing economic inequality, stagnation, massive structural poverty, and a stalemated national politics.
Paradoxically, however, this very stalemate is forcing people both to pursue innovative strategies in the short term and reassess longer term visions about where the left is and might decide to go. The coming year is likely to generate a major increase in both activism and the sophistication of activism, as we come to terms with the need to get serious about taking on the structural crisis and building an institutional basis that shores up the traditional left while at the same time laying the foundations for something beyond—i.e. the next system.
Here a myriad of underreported on-the-ground experiments with new forms of worker and community ownership, with more participatory forms of government and with more sophisticated forms of decentralised planning on the municipal and regional scales, are likely to be taken up by a movement increasingly aware that something fundamental is wrong with the system at a structural level. Already, the result is a growing understanding of the importance of democratising capital, and of the need to build a movement capable of doing so.
Precisely because the welfare state and social democracy is so much weaker in the United States than in many advanced systems—and because the country is so large and so decentralised—a different form of evolutionary reconstruction that is neither reform nor revolution may well be in the process of accelerating here. This, too, is laying the groundwork for systemic change around a much more highly decentralised social ownership model than many have as yet conceived.
I believe 2013 may mark an important inflection point in this trajectory, as the various strands working in this direction—the “new economy” and co-op movements, the leading edges of the labour movement, climate change activists, progressive politicians at the local level, and radicals looking for a way forward—begin to recognise their common task at this moment in history. As the system creates failure and disillusionment, yet does not collapse, a long path of rebuilding of consciousness is also developing. There will be inevitable setbacks, potentially even violence and repression, but a very significant process is quietly underway and is not likely to be easily thwarted as it slowly builds power.
Gar Alperovitz, Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is the author of the forthcoming What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About The Next American Revolution (Chelsea Green, May Day 2013)