The future progressive

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  January 16, 2014

In the film he asks: What’s the alternative to decay? Liberal politics doesn’t seem able to stop it. State socialism (e.g., the Soviet Union) is unappealing, to say the least.

The alternative, Alperovitz believes, is a democratic, decentralized economy involving the growth of consumer co-ops, worker-owned businesses (10 million Americans work in them already), and member-owned credit unions ($1 trillion in assets already). The credit unions, of course, would have to be made to act more in the interests of community development — as would the worker-owned businesses.

The discussion that took place after the screening was led by Rob Brown, of the Massachusetts-based Cooperative Development Institute. He reinforced Alperovitz’s notion that the only viable way to lessen the grip of the corporate economy on our lives is to extricate ourselves from its grasp.

That point resonated with me personally. To have the freedom to be a writer and activist for social change, I long ago concluded I couldn’t work as a “wage slave” to what in the sixties we called The Man. After a few jobs in my youth on daily newspapers, I went freelance — with great rewards, except for money.

I had the advantage of a rebellious disposition. I can be a pain in the ass with my scorn of mass-marketed materialism. Many people, though, have more to worry about than their immersion in consumerism. Reflecting on what prevented citizens from wresting control of the State House from corporate lobbyists, environmental activist Chris Buchanan, the rally’s organizer, opined that most people are too “wrapped up in basic survival” and in seizing the occasional “small happiness” to tackle abstract issues.

But here’s one beauty of Alperovitz’s suggestion: to live an alternative life, you don’t have to be radically independent personally. You can join with others to create a communal enterprise.

“Only forever”
The Belfast audience was 100 strong — impressive in a small town for a lecture and discussion on economics, but perhaps not surprising given that opinion polls show there’s great frustration and yearning for change in America, as Occupy and the Tea Party also have demonstrated.

Unfortunately, the post-film discussion was timid.

Alperovitz gives examples of significant collective action. In Cleveland a coalition of universities, hospitals, and a community foundation is creating a network of “green” cooperatives, including a weatherization firm, an urban greenhouse, and a large laundry.

In Belfast the audience offered less-than-paradigm-shattering suggestions such as having citizens get more involved in the town-planning process and asking municipal authorities to purchase more local goods.

But educating the public about alternatives takes time. Building a cooperative economy is “long-term stuff,” Alperovitz recognizes. The cooperative idea already has been around for a long time. “Worker control” as the alternative to corporate capitalism was accepted by most radicals in the late 1960s. I recall discussions among Maine left-wing activists in the 1970s about creating such an alternative economy. (There are signs the idea is catching on in Portland — consider the success of the Local Sprouts Cooperative and the Portland Food Co-op.)

Since the 1970s, however, the corporate economy has gotten vastly stronger. With the abundant cash that corporations and their rich owners distribute to both Republicans and Democrats, they’re much more politically powerful now.

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