American culture is ripe for a more positive economic system, and it’s entering “a period where neither reform or revolution is likely, and this will force people to build things,” author and political economist Gar Alperovitz said during a recent visit to Asheville. But for the next step, people have to “go out and build the damn thing,” even though that may take decades.
Alperovitz presented his new book, What Then Must We Do? to a packed Malaprop’s café on April 4. He opened by noting that the wealthiest 400 Americans own the same amount of the nation’s capital as the next 180 million Americans.
In his view, America has an economic system that cannot collapse or change, due to the marriage of corporation and state, and the weakness of “institutional opposition forces,” like unions. Therefore, when crisis hits, we are faced with what he described as a terribly slow and painful decay, felt throughout the nation via moral, environmental and financial hardships.
Phrasing his point a different way earlier that day, Alperovitz told a Firestorm Café gathering, “Nothing may happen” in the midst of different pressures for change, but causes like suffrage and civil rights had faced daunting odds too. “Berlin Walls fall, apartheid does collapse. Transformations happen too.”
Local residents reacted in various ways to his views.
Alperovitz is “offering an alternative,” said John Barry, business professor at Warren Wilson College. “There's a lot of capitalism-bashing going on right now, and I agree, something has to change, but it's nice to hear someone say, 'This is how we can go about it' and be proactive.”
Alperovitz offered a solution that is neither simple nor quick: democratic ownership of wealth at a local level, such as municipal enterprises, cooperatives and land trusts. Beyond localism, he also emphasized the need for a web of regional and national governmental support to the thousands of initiatives that are sprouting up around the U.S.
Reflecting on this concept, local community-builder Ron Czecholinski said, “Asheville has the potential to be exemplary, but there are huge gaps.” Pondering Alperovitz’ suggestion that the “new economy movement” is going to take conscientious effort, Czecholinski noted some ways to get Asheville moving forward — incubating worker-owned, local business; creating a local investor network; and searching for sustainable solutions to local problems.
Tim Ballard said he was particularly interested in the necessary national support for “all the things that we’re trying to do locally that aren’t always as effective as we’d like them to be.” The interim director for the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute, Ballard helps local restaurants go green. He mentioned that he often finds that, despite businesses’ enthusiasm for clean energy, the current system stifles such initiatives in favor of cheaper options, like coal. Given the progress on the local level, there are still limitations and opportunities that are tied to state and national policy, he concluded.
Barry observed, “Maybe Asheville is the place that seems primed for it; starting here and growing out. … There's a movement to cooperatives and worker-owned business. There are benefits, but also challenges, and we can learn from those bumps in the road.”
— Senior Staff Reporter David Forbes contributed to this report. Rachel Winner is a freelance writer and local blogger. You can find her work at winnerswords.com.