America’s original “Red Scare,” in the years right after World War I, ushered in a decade of intense political repression and deeply conservative public policy. Yet this dark time had a bright side. These dark years saw the beginnings of a political realignment that led to the New Deal and a memorable assault against that era’s outsized inequality.
Gar Alperovitz and his colleagues at the Next Systems Project make a compelling case that we might be witnessing the beginnings of a similar realignment here early in the Trump era. Their new book, Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth, lays out what our future could look like if we collectively decided to put people and the planet ahead of short term profit.
Donald Trump has dominated the news cycle for months now, sucking up all the air in whatever room his name comes up in. Alperovitz challenges us to think past today’s daily scandals to consider exactly what kind of society we want to live in. We are living, he suggests, in the “prehistory” of the next major system change.
"Today, we can take inspiration from these visionary leaders to work towards system change that often feels like it will never come."
This concept of prehistory is critical to the vision the Next Systems Project presents. History is full examples in which major systemic change appeared impossible, yet forward thinking people continued to push forward despite never knowing if they’d live to see the social change they sought. Civil rights activists of the 1930s and 40s are just one example, a group whose names are mostly uncelebrated despite their absolutely critical role in laying the groundwork for what would become the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act a generation later.
Today, we can take inspiration from these visionary leaders to work towards system change that often feels like it will never come.
This new Alperovitz book, available for in a free in a and beautifully designed online format, takes readers through a full redesign of the various systems that make up our economy and broader society. The guiding principles of this redesign: a commitment to democratizing our politics and our wealth, to transforming our corporations into worker-owned co-operatives and our Wall Street banks into community- run credit unions.
Longtime readers of Alperovitz will recognize many of the concepts from his previous works, notably his most recent book What Then Must We Do?. The premise for the title of that book comes paraphrased from Leon Trotsky in which Alperovitz asks, “If you don’t like state socialism and you don’t want corporate capitalism, then what do you want?” The answer Alperovitz and his colleagues suggest to this intriguing question is “pluralist commonwealth”, a model wholly different from the binary framing of capitalism vs. socialism.
In the future Alperovitz envisions, we would transition away from fossil fuels, speculative banking, concentrating wealth, ever-extended work weeks, and rising unemployment. We would build an economy that values in which everyone is valued, recognizes the limitations of the planet are recognized, and decentralizes power is decentralized.
Without visionary thinking, we can too easily fall into cycles of self-defeating cynicism. The Next Systems Project is offering a critically important space where we can envision the society we want and debate how we might get there.
Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Taxation and Opportunity at the Institute for Policy Studies.