This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from Gar Alperovitz’s recently released book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About The Next American Revolution. While fixing the economy is the most important issue to Americans, how to do so is still being hotly debated. Thus far, despite the urgency, Washington has been completely unsuccessful in working together to create jobs and reduce the deficit. Alperovitz, a political economist and historian, proposes an entirely new, pragmatic, step-by-step concrete approach to fixing the economy that would completely revolutionize our broken democratic-capitalist system.
You can purchase the book here.
How to Detect a System Problem Without Really Trying
People toss around the phrase It’s the system pretty loosely in everyday language. Usually they mean that things are sort of set up, by either design or accident, to run the way they run—and that the game is pretty well rigged so that those at the top (and their organizations) control the action. You can’t really buck the system: Too much power, too much red tape, too much bureaucracy—they’ll wear you down.
And so on.
That’s not a bad way to start thinking about the big system that defines the overarching contours of our national life—namely, the large corporate-dominated economic system and the heavily constrained political system that set the terms of reference for almost everything else.
I want to push a bit deeper, however. Here’s the essential point: A system problem—as opposed to your usual garden-variety political problem—is one that isn’t going to go away through politics as usual. It will require somehow changing the way things are rigged deeper down in the machinery of institutions, corporations, bureaucracy, and all the other elements of the system that produce the outcomes we experience.
A system problem is difficult. It runs deep.
Everyone knows we have problems in the United States: unemployment, poverty, environmental decay, global warming—to say nothing of whole cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and many others that have essentially been thrown away. If you are black or brown, your prospects are far worse. And wars keep happening, with little positive outcome and lots of dead American kids (to say nothing of dead Iraqis, Afghanis, and others). Civil liberties decay, day by day, year by year.
So much is obvious. Moreover, this wealthiest of all wealthy nations has been steadily falling behind many other nations of the world. Consider just a few wake-up-call facts from a long and dreary list: The United States now ranks lowest or close to lowest among advanced “affluent” nations in connection with inequality (21st out of 21), poverty (21st out of 21), life expectancy (21st out of 21), infant mortality (21st out of 21), mental health (18th out of 20), obesity (18th out of 18), public spending on social programs as a percentage of GDP (19th out of 21), maternity leave (21st out of 21), paid annual leave (20th out of 20), the “material well-being of children” (19th out of 21), and overall environmental performance (21st out of 21).
Add in low scores for student performance in math (17th out of 21), one of the highest school dropout rates (14th out of 16), the second-highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions (2nd out of 21), and the third-highest ecological footprint (3rd out of 20).
Also for the record: We have the worst score on the UN’s gender inequality index (21st out of 21), one of the highest rates of failing to ratify international agreements, the highest military spending as a portion of GDP (1st out of 21), and among the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP.1
Such facts are pretty hefty elbow nudges in the direction I’d like you to think about, but they aren’t (yet) much more than that. Everyone knows that if you don’t like the way things are turning out, the thing to do is to “get involved”—elect a congressman, or senator, or president. We’ve all been told (and maybe even told others!) that things aren’t going to change unless we all roll up our sleeves and get into the game.
I don’t have any problem whatsoever with that kind of advice—nor, as I mentioned in the introduction, with advice suggesting that we need to build a political movement. The problem is not with what is being said, but with what is not being said.
What is usually being said is this (in only slightly oversimplified language): We know that the economic system is dominated by large and powerful corporate institutions—and we know that the political system is dominated by money and lobbying, and also, in practice, by large corporate institutions.
The fundamental judgment, however, is that it is possible (without altering “the above”) to organize enough political power so that “the above” can be made responsive to the concerns of the vast majority of people in these United States.
Usually the way politics does this trick, it is hoped, is that enough power can be put together to tax “the above” and then spend for good things like schools, roads, bridges, and maybe even health care. Also, politics, it is hoped, can put together enough power to regulate “the above” to achieve health, a clean environment, safety, and other outcomes of importance to the people.
Now, it’s surely possible that this can be done sometimes. Moreover, almost certainly something like this (give or take some difficult questions we will shortly come to) has worked (sort of) in the past.
But there is a really interesting and challenging—and also profoundly important—matter I’d like you to ponder. Things seem to have changed. It no longer seems that “the system” can be managed in the old way. It is possible, of course, that this means that maybe it can’t be managed at all. Alternatively, clearly some way other than the above formula must be found to get us out of the box we are in.
The best way to ponder this matter at the outset is to take a look at some of the long, long trends documenting the outcomes flowing from the traditional assumptions and traditional political theory of change. Then we can consider what they tell us about whether the underlying system is being managed or if it is managing us.
Note carefully: Here and in what follows, I am not saying that traditional politics never works, or has never worked in the past. That is a different question. Nor am I suggesting (yet) what might be done about the way the world seems to be proceeding. (More on that later, too.)
What I’m asking you to ponder with me is the simple fact that the system (the way underlying institutional power is currently arranged) seems now to be producing outcomes, year in and year out, that do not much respond to the old theory of politics. Something deeper is going on.
This excerpt is reprinted here with permission of Chelsea Green Publishing. For more information, visit www.chelseagreen.com.