Friday, June 17, 2005

Giving Communities, in Theory and Practice

Okay, absolutely just one last Milbank-related post.

Months ago, I said I was going to review Gar Alperovitz's wonderful and incisive book, America Beyond Capitalism. I still haven't, obviously, though maybe I still will one of these days. Alperovitz's work is important because he insists that a thorough response to poverty, inequality, and the ways such both sustains and is caused by neoliberal globalization, cannot simply be restricted to the economic: the way in which we practice politics, constitute communities, and value work has to be re-assessed if any kind of egalitarianism is going to survive, much less flourish. And so he turns away from the usual nostrums of liberal egalitarianism and redistribution, and talks about the production and nature of wealth. He examines of a "pluralist commonwealth," wherein smaller, locally empowering cooperative businesses can make a niche for themselves and their workers in the midst of global competition. He calls his program "Twenty-First-Century Populism," and that's an accurate title, but of course it's also much more than that.

To encounter an argument focused upon the democratization of wealth, the challenge of technological abundance, and the need to break up de facto private monopolies of what ought to be publicly owned and managed resources and industries, is to assume that you're reading some kind of socialist argument; the fact that the title of the book containing this argument assumes a movement "beyond capitalism" would seem further evidence of this fact. And Alperovitz very tentatively allows for this label, though next to nothing about Marx or any other socialist thinker appears anywhere in the text. Quoting Ebenezer Howard, Alperovitz suggests that the kind of "socialism" he has mind simply means "a condition of life in which the well-being of the community is safeguarded, and in which the collective spirit is manifested by a wide extension of the area of municipal effort." This language has almost nothing in common with John Milbank's--except, of course, that they are talking about, in practice, exactly the same thing: the establishment of socio-economic arrangements which allow polities to become fully empowering of the individuals they shelter, by taking the natural gift-giving, wealth-building efforts of individuals and making them central to a participatory social and economic work that presumes a common good, a moral point, to their own communities and ways of life.

I was reminded of Alperovitz's work when I received an e-mail from a new website, Community Wealth.Org. Peter Levine, a thoughtful scholar and blogger (and someone that ought to be read regularly by anybody interested in deliberative democracy and egalitarian economic reforms) is one of those responsible for putting the site together, and thereby making available a lot of valuable information about how in America and abroad participatory principles of community work and wealth-creation are making a difference in people's lives. Alperovitz is also one of the contributors to the site. Levine's particular interest is in finding alternatives to "the standard business corporation," which of course are (to bring Milbank in again) one of the primary obstacles to individuals being able to orient their economic activities along lines other than those dictated by interests larger, removed from and more powerful than their own communities. He summarizes:

One of the biggest weaknesses of democracy today is the mobility of capital. As Alperovitz notes . . . . a corporation can influence political decisions in multiple ways, including the "implicit or explicit threat of withdrawing its plants, equipment, and jobs from specific locations." Besides, "in the absence of an alternative, the economy as a whole depends on the viability and success of its most important economic actor--a reality that commonly forces citizen and politician alike to respond to corporate demands." If there is no alternative to the standard corporation, then democracies really must do what firms want. Trying to restrict capital flows simply violates the laws of the market and will impose steep costs. In the market we have, it is not corrupt when democracies favor corporations; it's just realistic. However, Alperovitz and his colleagues are showing that there is an alternative to the corporation. It's possible to increase the wealth of people in poor communities by creating economically efficient organizations that are tied to places.

"Tied to places"--I like that, a lot. Obviously, given my interests and training, my focus is and probably always will be much more on the various philosophical and theological arguments and ideas which situate theories such as these. But it's good to be reminded, after writing a couple of lengthy posts on ontological matters, that one can point to actual, viable political reforms and actions which can be understood as flowing from such, rather than having to (as political theorists often must) weakly assume that such possibilities must be out there, somewhere.


Anonymous said...

Russell: With all due respect, the fact that you like the imagery tells us absolutely nothing about whether or not these alternatives are viable. Thanks for the pointers, however. I will have to take a look at this stuff when I get a moment. I am encouraged, of course, that you are reading something that contains the phrase "laws of the market" and ties it to a sensible statement about economics -- namely that capital controls have huge long term costs -- rather than insisting that such language represents a surrender to the forces of evil.

I am curious as to what he identifies as being the sine non qua of the modern business corporation that makes it the source of evil, eg dispersed ownership, limited liability, legal personality, immortality, the seperation of ownership and control, etc. 

Posted by Nate Oman

Anonymous said...

Rereading it, my comment is a bit sarcastic and biting, which I did not intend. Apologies. 

Posted by Nate Oman

Anonymous said...


You say that Alperovitz "turns away from the usual nostrums of liberal egalitarianism and redistribution."

But in his article, "Taking the Offensive on Wealth," he proposes, among other things, (1) instituting and raising luxury taxes, (2) raising the marginal rate for the top tax bracket back to 50%, (3) annual federal and state "wealth taxes" that would hit *any* assets one held above a certain dollar figure (he tosses out $100K as a good starting point), (4) squeezing more taxes directly out of corporations (without any acknowledgement of the fact that money flowing through most corporations is already taxed twice), and last but not least (5) increased "direct wealth ownership to benefit the public" (which by his examples often, though not always, translates to "government ownership of the means of production").

With his bewailing of the gap in wealth (conveniently ignoring the ever-increasing standard of living of even the poorest of Americans, record home ownership, etc.) and his old-school Robin Hood tactics, he appears to me to be right on board with the "usual nostrums" you say he avoids.


Posted by Scott

Anonymous said...


I'm glad you like the "Community Wealth" site. I share your enthusiasm for it, and I do think it represents a true alternative to "old-school Robin Hood" tactics (whatever Gar Alpwrovitz may have written elsewhere). However, I must deflect all credit for "Community Wealth." Alperovitz, Gordon, and their team are my colleagues and friends, but I knew nothing about their website until they launched it. Nor have I contributed to their overall project on wealth generation.  

Posted by Peter Levine