Web Only / Features » June 12, 2013
New Visions from the New Left
Gar Alperovitz and Staughton Lynd have blueprints for an ‘America beyond capitalism.’
Both Staughton Lynd and Gar Alperovitz imagine that their new America would evolve through a painstaking process in which the virtues of democratic socialism would be prefigured.
From their inception, most New Left movements of the Sixties offered a radically democratic vision of America’s future–critical not only of capitalism, then in its supposed golden age, but also of much about the Old Left, “real existing socialism,” and Cold War liberalism.
As both scholars and activists, Staughton Lynd and Gar Alperovitz were two leading proponents of that democratic critique and of a decentralized alternative directly controlled by citizens and workers. They collaborated at times, each writing half of a 1973 manifesto on strategies for a new American socialism, and in 1977 helping steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, try to keep open a threatened steel mill through community ownership.
In two new books that draw on lifetimes of experience, Lynd and Alperovitz present refined statements of strategic visions rooted in their earlier work for a much-changed present-day America. Both still believe that democracy can only thrive in a less centralized system that Lynd terms “libertarian socialism” and Alperovitz calls “a Pluralist Commonwealth.” Government would play an expanded role, but people would exercise more direct power at work and in their communities, thus checking potential abuses of bureaucracies and the state.
Both men imagine that their new America would evolve through a painstaking process in which the virtues of democratic socialism would be prefigured. People could experience proto-socialist alternatives within a capitalist society, much as free cities, guilds and commercial agriculture provided glimpses of capitalism within European feudalism.
As even their 1973 book illustrates, however, each has focused over the decades on slightly different aspects of transforming American capitalism.
Alperovitz has written extensively on policies and institutions for an “America beyond capitalism.” In his new book, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (Chelsea Green), he argues that worker and community ownership is increasingly relevant as systemic failures of capitalism promise continued economic pain for most Americans. Traditional liberalism, focused on regulating capitalism, no longer provides solutions and is losing its political base as the labor movement shrinks, he writes.
With an economy working only for the rich, Alperovitz says that now, even more than in the ’60s, communities and workers need democratic control over wealth to provide a sustainable, just economy. After many years of expansion and experience, he argues, an increasingly sophisticated “New Economy Movement” has produced a “checkerboard” pattern of innovations in group ownership of wealth, including cooperatives, land trusts, worker- or community-owned enterprises, employee stock ownership plans, municipal utilities, financial institutions (including some pension funds, credit unions, and a state bank), and municipal investments in land and businesses. Eventually, this new economy could include a single-payer health system, and nationalized banks and corporations, as many Left analysts have proposed during the Great Recession for the failures of the banking, health care and auto industries.
As this new cooperative economy grows, Alperovitz thinks two things will happen. Many more participants will gain confidence that an alternative to capitalism can work. And as their experiences lead them to challenge reigning notions of individualism, property and wealth, they will become the base of a new political movement for economic democracy.
But will capitalists tolerate democratized ownership if it goes beyond filling marginal economic niches? Can the movement for this new egalitarian and cooperative economy flourish without gaining control of the economy’s “Commanding Heights,” such as the financial markets?
To counter the ways that the larger political and economic environment may undermine its goals, Alperovitz writes that the movement for democratic wealth needs to link local enterprises together to share knowledge, initiate new projects and gain customers and support through local governments and institutions like universities, as Cleveland’s worker-owned businesses have done. But even isolated democratic ownership projects can be worthwhile and compatible with other progressive strategies, as unions such as the Steelworkers have realized.
Lynd, a historian punished in the late ’60s by academia for his early leadership in the civil rights and anti-war movements, retooled as a lawyer and moved to Youngstown, where he and his wife, Alice, used their legal, organizing and writing skills on behalf of workers and then prisoners, as jails replaced factories in the area.
More than Alperovitz, Lynd emphasizes how workers and citizens can gain experiences of solidarity and power that also prefigure libertarian socialism through democratic movements that challenge dominant economic institutions, often through direct actions like strikes and occupations. But for Lynd the internal organization of movements and the human relationships they create are as critical in building a new society as their professed goals.
In Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change (PM), Lynd argues that the Left should stop organizing as unions, community groups and civil rights organizations have done in the past—sending outsiders into communities to pull people together on behalf of a project, then move on. Instead, he recommends a model of “accompanying,” in which an individual spends an extended time with a community and commits to “equality, listening, seeking consensus and exemplary action.”
Lynd first learned about the idea of “accompanying” from the writings of slain El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. But he realized that Alice had followed a similar path in her ‘60s-era counseling of draft resisters. Unlike religious or political missionaries bringing the true religion, an individual “accompanying” others treats them as equal collaborators and fellow “experts,” learning from them while sharing his own views honestly.
As they challenge entrenched institutions, Lynd says, people need to experience the direct democratic exercise of power, such as through the rank-and-file oriented “Solidarity Unionism” that he contrasts with typical union hierarchies. “There’s a question of power, changing the nature of capitalism,” Lynd tells In These Times. “Gar and I have very similar goals, a participative society. But I am much more concerned than he appears to be with the taking of power, and by that I don’t mean taking over the state as much as challenging basic capitalist institutions that hold this society together.”
While Lynd still sees a role for labor unions, especially with more democratic control and worker initiative (like the UFCW’s OUR Walmart campaign), neither he nor Alperovitz devotes much attention to conventional, electoral politics. But democratizing power and wealth on a large scale will require major changes in government, and a large-scale political effort may require additional strategies (such as, Lynd writes, going beyond consensus decision-making in small groups to representative democracy). Lynd advocates a mass labor or socialist party, but he gives higher priority to building movements that can pressure politicians, as the Left, he says, has failed to do with Obama. “Obama is a liberal, a good human being,” he said in our interview, “and we have failed him.”
Lynd’s and Alperovitz’s strategic visions differ, but they complement each other. Together they offer an important component of the answer to what a new New Left must do. A spirit of democracy and egalitarianism animates both visions, but neither fully imagines how the Left might gain and use state power or how to change the national or global economic rules to support their decentralized future.
Yet progressives would do well to incorporate their deep moral vision, whatever the scale of action. “Our most urgent priority is not to give someone else the authority to act on our behalf [or] the responsibility to remake the world,” Lynd writes. “No, we need to remake the world ourselves, right now, from below and to the Left.”
As “the sum of my best wisdom and counsel as an elder,” he proposes that “100,000 young radicals spread evenly across the United States” beyond the hipdoms of major metropolitan areas to live in the country’s many Youngstowns, accompanying their neighbors on a journey to a new America. “Then see what happens in 25 years.”
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.