David Harvey and Gar Alperovitz have been thinking, writing and speaking about capitalism for decades. David Harvey is a widely cited author of, among other things, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Gar Alperovitz is co-founder of The Democracy Collaborative, and a member of the board of directors for the New Economics Coalition. He’s also an author, most recently of What Then Must We Do, in which he lays out proposals for democratizing wealth and building an alternative economy.
Unless you happen to be one of those who thinks our current economy is doing great and all is hunky-dory in the world of work and money and human relations, you’ll have a good idea why I invited these two talk with me and with each other. What follows is a softly edited transcript of a one-of-a kind conversation. While they had been working on parallel tracks, they’d never met.
Is the Left struggling in the right places? Are we making the right mistakes?
Says Alperovitz:“The crisis is severe enough that you cannot solve the problem the old way.”
Says Harvey: “People are often thinking about remedies for poverty or remedies for social distress. I think we should be trying to think about how do we appropriate the wealth that is being appropriated from us.”
You can watch a video excerpt of this conversation at GRITtv.org and see the full Laura Flanders Show, of which this is just a part, on TeleSUR English. TeleSur English, the new Latin American network, posts The Laura Flanders Show every Monday at 5.30 Eastern Time. Follow and receive reminders on Twitter at @GRITtv or on Facebook.
Laura: David, Gar, there’s so much to discuss with both of you: from capital, to labor, to work and human relations. Why don’t we start by trying to paint a picture of where we are right now. How would you describe, David, the situation in which we find ourselves, economically, maybe humanely speaking?
David Harvey - I think we’re at an inflection point in the history of capitalism. Capitalism is two hundred years old, maybe a little bit more, and it can’t be another two hundred years of this. Partly because of the rate of growth, which is required - an exponential growth rate that goes up, and up, and up. And of course within it we see the more and more pressing environmental problems, more and more problems of social inequality, tremendous difficulties of redistributing wealth and the political system is completely out of whack and purchased by big money power. So something’s gotta give. There’s a lot of bubbling going on in the grassroots almost everywhere in the world and this system cannot last. The question is what’s going to replace it and how?
Gar Alperovitz - I would put it this way…I think in the Nineteenth Century basically they ran the system by taking over the continent and killing whoever got in their way. In the 20th century, the system was stabilized, I don’t think by plan, but it was in fact stabilized in the first quarter by World War I; in the second quarter by World War II and the third quarter by the Cold War, Vietnam, Korea, etc. The defense budget is running down to three percent of the economy and we’re running out of wars as stabilizers. I think the system is in decay and stalemate. It can get very nasty. The question is being posed: where is this all going and how do we get talking about different systemic possibilities?
Laura Flanders - That gets me to my question, is capitalism the problem or just our U.S. extreme version of it?
Gar Alperovitz - We’re talking about capitalism. That’s the nature of the expanding system in all of these cases. I think also the question, the traditional models that have been offered to deal with “if you don’t like capitalism, then what do you want?” The state socialist model system is in disregard and there are a lot of reasons for that in terms of what happened in the Soviet Union, invasions and the wars, but also there is not an alternative conception of where we want to go that’s fleshed out and talked about, and I think we’re on the phase of having a discussion about that. If you don’t like corporate capitalism and you don’t like state socialism, and we need an answer. How do we begin talking seriously about the next system? David’s written about that in the last book and I’ve written about it and I think we’ve got to have that conversation now, it’s really ripe.
David Harvey - In the 1930s for example, there was an alternative capitalism which could be invented which was largely social democratic, state-managed and partly based on war and the like. That ran into crisis in the early 1960s and 1970s and another capitalism was invented which we often refer to as neo-liberalism where everything gets privatized and everything gets commodified. We start to dismantle the welfare state and all of the rest of it so we’ve gone that path, but there’s not alternative form of capitalism right now. I think what is striking about this crisis that has been brewing for a long time and broke out really badly in 2008, is that nobody has got a really clear answer on where to go, which suggests to me that the time is right that maybe we should go outside of capitalism and talk about some alternative system.
Gar Alperovitz - At the heart of that social democratic model or liberalism in the United State… in addition to war (because that stimulated the economy) was the traditional labor movement. That’s disintegrated. You don’t get social democracy or liberalism without a reasonably strong labor movement. It’s gone from thirty-four percent of the labor force organized (in the early 1950s), to six percent in the private sector. Any model that gets us beyond capitalism will be changing and socializing ownership of capital. That’s the name of the game. The question is, how do you do that in a way that’s somehow not statist, that produces a humane vision, is productive, is ecologically sensible, is defending of liberty rather than oppressing liberty. It’s time for a really powerful discussion and experimentation of that type. We are seeing cooperatives and worker-owned companies experimenting; we are seeing city-owned municipalizations ... We are seeing experiments in Cleveland - neighborhood-wide ownership structures, corporate worker participation; we’re seeing experimentation with alternative forms - state public banks - but these are all preliminaries that begin to suggest some of the possibilities of the theoretical model that might ultimately involve.
Laura Flanders - What do you think, David?
David Harvey - I like a lot of the experimentations going on. I think it’s great, but the problem I have with it is that people are often thinking about remedies for poverty or remedies for social distress. I think we should be trying to think about how do we appropriate the wealth that is being appropriated from us. There is immense wealth out there which is very, very concentrated in a very, very small group of the population that has assembled that wealth over the last thirty to forty years incredibly powerfully. I think everyone who is working on anti-poverty organization ought to join an anti-wealth organization, and actually let us take back the wealth that has been taken from us and redistribute it. I think there is plenty of wealth to go around where everybody could have a decent life, a decent living environment, but we can’t right now because certain people have billions and billions of dollars and they did very well, by the way, out of this last crisis. All of the data show that these guys came out of the crisis very fast and actually some of them doubled or tripled their wealth in three or four years since the crisis while everybody else has done very badly. When we kind of say the system is in crisis, it’s not in crisis for them. The top one percent has come out of it extremely well, they are doing very well, they are very successful, and the rest of us are doing very badly.
Laura Flanders - So, it’s not in crisis enough! That goes to the question of are we struggling in the right places? History, as you have written of movements - and you just talked about the labor movement - has lead us to fight in the place of work; workplace struggles around hours and wages, promotions and control. You could look at cooperatives as another experiment on that front, but where else could this change work be happening and is it wrong to still be focusing on the workplace?
David Harvey - The trouble right now is that we’re not necessarily focusing on the workplace and I don’t think we should be necessarily focusing on the workplace. If you look at all of the unrest that’s burst out, for instance in Brazil just recently, or you look at what’s happening in Turkey at Gezi Park and all the rest of it, what was it about? It’s about the qualities of urban life. It’s not simply about the factory and the workplace it’s about qualities of urban living and a lot of revolutionary uprisings that occurred in the last twenty to thirty years have been urban rebellions, interesting echoes of the 1960s. They’ve been urban rebellions rather than simply focused on the workplace and I think we should take those urban rebellions very seriously, and say that people want an alternative form of urbanization. They want decent housing and a decent living environment and those questions are absolutely crucial, as well as the traditional questions that the Left has worked at, which is organizing in the workplace.
Gar Alperovitz - We haven’t had it in the United States, the kind of uprising that you’re talking about, so we haven’t seen that yet, and when we had it last time, there wasn’t any content. There was not a sense of where to go with it. I think we’ve got to begin to develop what the models are, and again, where does that take us?
David Harvey - Part of my problem is, we’re not even thinking about it. Not systematically enough.
Laura Flanders - Well, where do you see shifts happening? I will say one of the great contributions of the women’s movement, of the feminist movement, was to say that the realm of the personal is political. It has been women over here who have been saying that while you guys are focusing on the workplace, the home and the quality of life that we’re living outside of the factory deserves another look. Is there hope there? Maybe, in the organizing of women workers, home care workers and mothers and teachers and all of the rest?
Gar Alperovitz - There are a group of feminist city planners. The way in which capital is organized now, you split the suburb here, you split people here, the man goes away or the woman goes away and who’s going to take care of the kids? It’s all isolated. The reconstruction literally of the design of the city becomes part and parcel of what we need to talk about.
Laura Flanders - Less separation between paid work and the still unpaid ….
Gar Alperovitz - There is wonderful work that has been done by women city planners to say “the non-sexist city” what does it actually look like? What would actually build community? I think that is a critical aspect because we’ve got to somehow begin to put these pieces together as a coherent dialogue. We were talking earlier that it’s time to have this conversation. We talked about Murray Bookchin’s work. Other people have started laying out a concept that begins to fulfill these values that is neither the worker-owned model narrowly or the state-owned model, but actually begins to emphasize these values and provide a structural base for it.
Laura Flanders - When you two have in common is that you talk about networks, community systems. You [David] talk about communes and territories, I think, in your most recent book.
David Harvey - Yes, I think territory organization is very, very significant.
Laura Flanders - And what do you mean by that?
David Harvey - Well, there are a number of things. If you want to start thinking about environmental questions, you really have to start to think in terms of bio-regions and things like this, which is as self sufficient as possible in terms of its metabolic relation to the world around in terms of food supplies, etc. Which isn’t to say that the solution I imagine can be entirely local. We’re never going to be able to grow coffee in New York City and I like my coffee. We don’t want to give up those things, but we can start thinking about trading relations between bio-regions and the like, in such a way that this is actually more environmentally friendly and then we don’t do silly things like import water from Fiji.
Gar Alperovitz - I like what you just said. If you begin at that level or even at the city or the region (the region is critical in all of this), then it becomes how do you stabilize the region? How do you move up to scale? So, you’ve got to get to the planning problem and the state problem, but if you start in terms of territorial questions then I think you’re in a good starting place.
Laura Flanders - You [David] in your most recent book, talk about the contradictions of capital. You [Gar] talk about expanding ownership of capital. Can we define terms a bit?
David Harvey - Well, capitalism is money that is used to make more money, or the other way I look at it - the way in which social labor is appropriated by private persons… The accumulation of capital to me is what is central. So capitalism is not a thing, it’s a process. It’s the process of circulation; of money making more money that is appropriated by individuals. One of the things I would want to do is to say that the more and more of the economy we can take out of that circulation process, the better off we will be. The trend over the last thirty to forty years is to take everything from housing, to education - let’s take something like education - more and more it’s become more integrated into the circulation of capital with the result that students are now living in indebtedness and the money kind of calculations drive universities up, preschool, and all of the rest of it. This is something that you want to be reversed and go in the other direction. In other words, we should have an education system that’s de-commodified, taken out of the commodity realm; taken out of the realm of the circulation of capital. You look at healthcare, you look at education, you look at water, you look at basic utilities, you look at housing; there’s a mission here and one of the things we can do is de-commodify all of those things and start saying we can find a way of providing those things socially without going through this business of some people getting extremely rich on playing in the housing market as they did before the housing market crashed in 2007.
Laura Flanders - There are still going to be people who are investing and accumulating wealth. Do we need money that rots or decays so that you cannot accumulate it?
David Harvey - I love this idea of oxidized money. The money that disintegrates and actually people have played around with this. There are some systems that exist right now that do this.
Laura Flanders - People are experimenting with time banking and bitcoin.
Gar Alperovitz - There are all sorts of banking discussions going on with these kinds of questions in mind. The experiments are useful in that respect, but it’s also important to note, that when I went to the University of Wisconsin (a state-owned university), it was what you were talking about. We paid fifty dollars a year tuition, or ninety dollars a semester, something like that. It was provided as a public service and it was not commodified.
David Harvey - I got all the way through to my PhD and it was all paid for.
Gar Alperovitz - There are these elements in this system that could be developed and need to be brought forward, and it’s these elements that become part and parcel of the next vision. Yes, that is what this is all about: building a system that actually de-commodifies; changes the ownership and functions of capital, but does it in a way that’s democratized, decentralized and humane, which has not been a part of the actual experience in some parts of the world. We have got to figure out how to make that real.
Laura Flanders - The other big issue is around the question of growth.[State] the problem.
Gar Alperovitz - Capitalism is a system that must grow in order for the accumulation process to continue, [and it has] to grow against the ecological limits of the society and the globe, of the world. The next system has got to deal with something that doesn’t by definition have to grow. We’re finding very interesting, very radical people, but also liberals, and a lot of them are moderate people saying that really is the question …
David Harvey - There are a lot of movements around. I’ll just give you one example. There are quite a few progressive mayors being elected and city council being elected in the United States right now. Then you kind of say to yourself, let’s think about what kind of alliance they might have together. Many of them are doing things like passing minimum wage ordinances and supporting land trusts… in what we might call a partnership relationship to social movements. There is something going on there… I don’t think it’s necessarily that progressive, but on the other hand progressive forces could take that on and really change the world.
Gar Alperovitz - The crisis is severe enough that you cannot solve the problem the old way. In some parts of the country people are being forced to experiment. This is a time when the left needs to be both articulate, active, but also talking to Americans. They want to hear something new that makes sense rather than rhetoric.
David Harvey - We’ve got to have a new world in politics and I think it’s time for invention and experimentation, and of course, experimentation often means that you get things wrong, but we’ve got to go out there, I think, and really push.
Gar Alperovitz - And embrace that notion, that there will be failure. You can’t move forward without that and it’s absolutely part of the process.
Laura Flanders - Go out. Make a mistake. Embrace it. Make change! Thank you both. Thanks for coming in.