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2011-12-15

"Worker-Owners of America, Unite": Will Cooperative Workplaces Democratize U.S. Economy?

Guests

Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland. His op-ed, "Worker-Owners of America, Unite!" is published today in the New York Times. A new edition of his book, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, has also just been published.

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As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to protest record levels of wealth and income inequality, we turn to an author who says the U.S. economy might be becoming more democratic. Gar Alperovitz argues in an op-ed in today’s New York Times that we may be in the midst of a profound transition toward an economy characterized by more democratic structures of ownership. Alperovitz finds that 130 million Americans are members of some kind of cooperative, and 13 million Americans work in an employee-owned company. He says the United States may be heading toward something very different from both corporate-dominated capitalism and from traditional socialism. "I think we’re seeing a change in attitude, both increasing doubts about what’s now going on in the economy, deep doubts, very deep doubts—thanks to Occupation, it’s crystallized—but this other trend of saying, 'What do you want? Where are we going?' in some ways to democratize the economy in a very American way," Alperovitz says. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As the Occupy movement continues to protest record levels of wealth and income inequality, we turn to an author who says the economy might be becoming more democratic. Gar Alperovitz argues in an op-ed in today’s New York Times that we may be in the midst of a profound transition towards an economy characterized by more democratic structures of ownership.

AMY GOODMAN: Alperovitz finds that 130 million Americans are members of some kind of cooperative, and 13 million Americans work in an employee-owned company. He says the U.S. may be heading toward something very different from both corporate-dominated capitalism and from traditional socialism.

Gar Alperovitz is a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland. His op-ed is called "Worker-Owners of America, Unite!" It’s out today in the New York Times. A new edition of his book, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, has also just been published.

So, what’s the evidence for this, Gar?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, it’s piling up right beneath the surface, that the press, the normal press, hasn’t been covering. You know, 130 million people, that’s 40 percent of United States, involved in credit unions, co-ops all over the country, that don’t get any publicity. And roughly 13 million people, in one kind or another, have worker-owned companies—again, five or six million more people than are involved in labor unions. And several states are attempting to set up state banks, like the existing Bank of North Dakota. A number of cities are trying to set up city banks. San Francisco and Portland are the latest ones on the list. So, if you look deeper, you find wonderful experiments going on. One really interesting one in Cleveland, where there’s a group of cooperatively owned businesses by—in the community that are building a hydroponic land kind of greenhouse, producing three to five million heads of lettuce a year, a gigantic laundry—all this worker-owned. And again, the press hasn’t been covering it, but there—it gives you a sense of what could happen if the Occupy movement gets serious about simply building on what’s already out there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But in terms of a critical mass for the economy, are we talking about here cooperatives that have a significant share of the economic activity in the country, or are we talking largely about very small co-ops that, while they may involve a lot of people, don’t really have that much impact on the overall economy of the country?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, that’s the interesting thing. Of course most of this is still much smaller than the giant corporations—I mean, the ones that got us into trouble and the ones that got nationalized, as in GM and Chrysler and the big banks. And at some point, we’re going to have to go to that level. But what’s happening, and I think because of the pain levels, we’re seeing these things grow over time simply because the pain is growing.

And the ones I mentioned in Cleveland are not small. We’ve got a laundry—an industrial-scale laundry going on there, owned by the workers in that community, that’s probably the most ecologically advanced in the country. This large greenhouse that’s developing, three to five million heads of lettuce. These are not your little corner stores. So I see a trend of expanding possibility, building step by step on what’s already out there. We’ve learned a lot in the last several decades. And I think it’s going to grow over time because of the pain levels. That’s what the evidence suggests.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about the banks and the credit unions, the state banks that are developing.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, we’ve had, since the beginning part of the century in North Dakota, a state-owned bank, highly successful. The press doesn’t cover it. But it’s a bank that exists just like other banks, but it doesn’t speculate. It doesn’t use money to do what the Wall Street banks are doing. And as I say, there are about 14 states that have introduced legislation to reproduce that, help finance small business, on the one hand, but co-ops and worker-owned firms, and most of this with a real green edge to it, ecologically developed. And in these city banks, the same thing, trying to focus—for instance, in San Francisco, there’s about $2 billion in state—in city money, that’s taxpayer money. Instead of putting it in the Bank of America, the proposal is put it in a city bank or a city credit union and then use that to finance development in the city.

And I think that direction, using those public monies, and not simply to finance corporations or speculation, but doing it in a way that builds up this already developing knowledge and base of worker-owned companies, community-owned developments, neighborhood developments, co-ops, that form of development, the way to think about it is the—you know, the two to three decades before the Progressive Era and the Populist Era really made a big national impact. There was a developmental process, step by step, at the state level. Take the women’s right to vote, the same thing: step by step, state by state by state, building up over three to four to five decades. But I think the pain level is so high, it’s going to be quicker this time. So I take this local development process very seriously. And I think it can lead to national change, as the New Deal did at one point when the pain levels really struck. You know, at the other—

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk—

GAR ALPEROVITZ: At the other—go ahead.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If I can, you also talk about the changing attitudes, especially among young Americans, toward concepts like capitalism and socialism. Could you talk about that, as well?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Yeah, there was a Rasmussen poll—now, we’re talking about a fairly conservative polling group—in 2009. People under 30, they found, were equally disposed as to whether capitalism or socialism was a better system. And now that’s a big change. We’re past the time in the Cold War when anyone who mentioned anything like a worker-owned company or cooperative or public-owned enterprise was written out of court. Lots of younger people are looking at what will work in the midst of a failing economy, where the large corporations are falling day by day and the speculators on Wall Street are speculating away the money. I think we’re seeing a change in attitude, both increasing doubts about what’s now going on in the economy, deep doubts, very deep doubts—thanks to Occupation, it’s crystallized—but this other trend of saying, "What do you want? Where are we going?" in some ways to democratize the economy in a very American way, something very—you can explain to your neighbors, this is—this makes sense, in these cities that I’ve been talking about. You get a whole larger coalition of people understanding there’s a hell of a lot of pain here, we can develop something here that moves us in a direction of democratizing local economies and beyond.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Gar Alperovitz, the name of your book, America Beyond Capitalism. Do you think that’s possible in this country?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, I’m a—you know, I’m a historian and a political economist. Changes of major kinds, if you look at decade-by-decade development, fundamental systemic change is as common as grass in world history. A lot of pain. But I think an America beyond capitalism is a real possibility. Again, if you stand back, the way the civil rights folks did—my heroes are the civil rights leaders in the 1930s and '40s, the ones who laid the basis for the big change that came in the ’60s, and I think that's the way to understand what’s going on at the grassroots level and the sort of things that Occupation has been teaching us. Get in there now and begin to develop that base and that foundation for the transformation.

AMY GOODMAN: Gar Alperovitz, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of political economy at University of Maryland. His op-ed, "America Beyond Capitalism." In fact, that’s the title of his book, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, just published.

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