“We are at a moment in history where we are facing what can only be called systemic difficulties. Ultimately that means we are going to have to develop a way to transform the system. That’s the challenge. It’s important to clarify that neither of the old models—traditional corporate capitalism in America and state socialism––neither of those models are going to give us the right answer. So we are going to have to build and create pragmatically from the bottom up and build a new direction if we want to deal with real democracy, poverty, ecological sustainability, global warming, race issues, income distribution, and wealth distribution. If we really want to build the best that this society can offer we must ourselves come to terms with how difficult the challenge is, how big it is. In a certain sense, systemic change is very common in world history.”
Excerpted from an interview with Gar Alperovitz, by the SOCAP conference organizers:
“* SOCAP: In your speech at SOCAP12 you spoke of “a movement building that cuts across many, many parts of the spectrum…a movement (that is asking itself) what would it take to transform an economic system? Not just doing isolated projects, but projects that build up and begin to ask that big, big question together in a strategic way, not simply a tactical way.” How does the Next System Project fit into the actualization of this transformational, “broader movement” you called for?
Gar Alperovitz: What’s happening now—we think it’s really interesting. We’re getting more and more evidence that people in many parts of the country are reaching a point where they have done really good projects and they have learned a lot doing the developmental work. But they simultaneously have the sense that something bigger is going on: the economy is faltering, income inequality is getting worse, global warming is getting worse, racial problems are growing. The growing sense is that in fact we face what can only be called a system problem–something bigger than projects, something much bigger even than electing the next person. It is something deeper.
What the Next System Project is attempting to do, in the first instance, is help people come to terms with this. We have released a statement signed by several thousand people, starting with people like Bill McKibben on the one hand and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich on the other, and others like my colleague and co-Chair Gus Speth, Professor Juliet Schor, Angela Glover Blackwell (the head of PolicyLink), and many more. It’s a group that cuts right across the spectrum of activists and academics, some more mainstream and some more radical—but all these different folks realizing and trying to say to each other, “look, we are in a different moment.” There is something much deeper going on and the first step in dealing with it is to recognize this and understand that it is not the kind of thing that will be solved simply by electing the next person and not the sort of thing that will be solved only by building projects (although good projects are absolutely essential.)
We are at a moment in history where we are facing what can only be called systemic difficulties. Ultimately that means we are going to have to develop a way to transform the system. That’s the challenge. It’s important to clarify that neither of the old models—traditional corporate capitalism in America and state socialism––neither of those models are going to give us the right answer. So we are going to have to build and create pragmatically from the bottom up and build a new direction if we want to deal with real democracy, poverty, ecological sustainability, global warming, race issues, income distribution, and wealth distribution. If we really want to build the best that this society can offer we must ourselves come to terms with how difficult the challenge is, how big it is. In a certain sense, systemic change is very common in world history. It has happened again and again in many other countries. In our own country, there can be hope if we begin to get together and face what needs to be done and begin building forward.
* In your book, What Then Must We Do, you argue that some of the most critical problems facing Americans today are woven into the fabric of our economic and political systems. The Next System Project takes that further to say that we are facing an even larger set of intertwined, systemic crises (social, political, economic, and environmental) that require systemic answers. How does The Next System Project intend to tackle such a vast and complex web of challenges?
It’s clear that The Next System project alone will never be able to do what needs to be done. Our hope is that we can be at least one of several catalytic agents that can help open up this development for many people. Think about the civil rights movement or the environmental movement or the feminist movement. All of these had a long prehistory, but right before these movements became movements, there was a moment when something finally clicked and millions of people suddenly realized that there was a new challenge. Before this, it was quiet in regard to many feminist issues, quiet with regard to many environmental issues, quiet with regard to civil rights, but then there was an explosion of energy. The Next System Project hopes to make a contribution to what we think is a growing underground understanding—to, first, clarify that the problem is systemic and, second, that there are things that we can do, and that people are doing all over the country. This is how quiet murmurs become a powerful explosion.
Let me give you an example. During the 1930s New Deal, things that had never been done before happened at the national level. Social Security is the most obvious one. We now take it for granted, but at the time this was a massive national program that no one had ever thought possible. If you look ten years before the New Deal, you find all this experimentation going on just below the surface at the local level in the “laboratories of democracy.” This experimentation is analogous to the kind of local innovation that SOCAP is so used to now: in connection with the environment, with solar work, with local economic development,and so forth. In those pre-New Deal days, we were talking about labor and social programs, minimum wage, legislation, and labor laws. That’s the sort of thing that was developing experimentally out in the grass roots; and then at the right moment, it exploded at the national level in a big big way. But it couldn’t have happened without the experiments that preceded it and it couldn’t have happened without many people beginning to take themselves much more seriously in terms of what they were actually doing. They weren’t simply doing new and exciting experiments at the grassroots level. To be sure they were doing those experiments, but they were also doing something much more important. If you look at it from a historical point of view, they were developing the kind of experiments that could lead to much bigger applications of the main principles. They were changing the system, not just changing what happens locally.
And at the Next System Project we think it’s possible, and we hope it’s possible, to help create a space where this is what we can be doing today. We want to get people to take their work much more seriously in terms of where it could lead and what type of larger applications it can have. Indeed, changing the system in the direction that has already begun, that is reflected in the many thousands of local experiments and developments that the folks at SOCAP are very familiar with.
* Can you give us an example of an encounter that led you personally to the conviction that systemic crises require systemic answers? Did you have an experience that catalyzed the creation of the Next System Project?
I can give you two different experiences in this regard. Long ago I worked in the U.S. Senate, directing staff and legislative work for Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. He was the environmentalist of that era. At that time environmental issues were around, but they were not explosively being taken seriously around the country until Earth Day created a moment that really mattered. That’s one. That gave me the sense that things can change.
The other occurred around the same time. I went down to Mississippi and traveled the state with a very famous civil rights leader named Bob Moses. I saw what ordinary folks were doing in very difficult circumstances to transform the reality in the deep South. I saw how this work was the foundation of what later became the big Civil Rights Movement—they ultimately did, one day, overcome. My sense that things can explode and build if you start at the bottom and catalyze things came from these experiences.
More recently I’ve become deeply involved in the New Economy movement, and the environmental movement, and the movement around democratizing ownership (through co-ops, social enterprise and a whole range of things). Over the last three years particularly, if you look carefully at the number of people involved and the number of projects, what was just at the cusp of being developed then is becoming very conventional now. All over the country, young people are getting engaged in the New Economy Movement and new environmental projects. There is something that has become, not just a project here and there, but a sense that this direction is important for a range of things, all the way from Black Lives Matter and the economic and community development that goes with that to changing environment and social enterprise programs. Those ideas are becoming conventional now, whereas a few years ago they were just at the margins. The folks at SOCAP knew about them but they were not widely developed. What I am really impressed by is how fast things are changing as we are moving towards a much larger picture of what can be done based on things going on every day.
* How can the Next System initiative impact strategic thinking across sectors?
We’re thinking about many different things and just catching up with ourselves, as well—we launched this at the end of March and there has been such a positive and explosive reaction. We’ve got several things that we hope to do. The first is we’re planning a series of meetings and conferences starting in 2016 to bring together people who understand this. We want to start a very explicit debate around the question: what would the next system look like? If you don’t think that corporate capitalism is going to solve all the problems and socialism doesn’t, what does it look like? And surprisingly there were lots of people thinking about that.
Juliet Schor, the famous environmental economist, has been talking about new technologies and different visions of the community building economy inspired by those technologies. Other people have been starting at the other end with community based economic development, and then projecting out what the next system might look like in those terms. They aren’t just focused on the projects, but on the infrastructure that needs to be built to scale up and generalize those projects. What, for instance, would the banking system that could support this look like? You have examples here to build from, like the Bank of North Dakota, which everyone is looking at– a public bank in a very conservative state. Many cities are considering setting up city banks–in Santa Fe for instance, or in Philadelphia where the conversation around this is very advanced.
We hope to highlight that there is a ladder that you can go up, moving from the project level to higher and higher scales. We want to suggest: what it would be like if we went all the way up, if we began saying: what about the whole society? What if we actually built from the very best we know, refined it, built it up in scale, moved it up step by step. This would begin to sketch out the picture of one way of looking at the next system. That’s one kind of thing we’re hoping to do.
We’re also helping set up teach-ins across the country at college campus where the same set of questions will be posed to large numbers of folks. During the 1960s teach-ins were an explosive way in which big ideas were debated on campus. We think the time may be right to do something similar.
A third area, and a really important one, is research. My Co-Chair, Gus Speth—one of the nation’s leading environmentalists—is overseeing much of this. How do you actually do things at larger scales, like a new banking system? What would it mean to get really serious about larger scale environmental controls that went beyond the regulatory process? What can we learn from other countries, and what can we apply here? What about economic growth? We may be coming up against the limits of growth. That poses major problems for any society. These are some of the big issues. So we are doing research on that and starting debates among activists, scholars, writers so we get new ideas on the table that people can grapple with.
There are a lot of things on our plate. We can’t do it all by ourselves—our hope is, and we are beginning to see this, that lots more people want to get in and roll up their sleeves. We are hoping that many of the folks at SOCAP will want to pick it up as well.
* Can you give an example of what is inspiring you in your work right now? What is giving you hope?
I think the thing that has struck me is the pace at which change is occurring and amongst large numbers of people, not just younger people but older people, too. It’s a very specific thing. We’ve had a lot of people say, gosh, everything is going to hell in a handbag: the environment, climate change, global warming, race issues. That’s negative awareness. What is inspiring to me is how many people are now saying, enough of the negative; things are going to change but only if we get going. And I’ve been running into this new attitude not only among activists of many communities, but also among people who have been deeply involved in SOCAP. The same idea, working both at the local level and nationally to start changing the system, instead of just saying things are terrible over and over again. There’s an awareness not only that we can experiment, but that we can move our awareness to a different level. We have the possibility of laying the groundwork for historical change, really changing something big. I’ve been picking this up, a sense of the importance of the moment among more and more people. It is very inspiring.
If you look back at the early history: of what I sometimes call the prehistory of the feminist movement, the prehistory of the Civil Rights Movement, the prehistory of the environmental movement, what you find in the time before a movement knows itself as a movement is a moment when people were doing little projects and doing good things on their own and something clicked. And they began to see, “we’re actually building a movement that has power.” We’re not quite there yet with the Next System but I sense more and more people are coming to realize that the way forward is to build up from all the things we are already doing and take ourselves very seriously about laying groundwork for something far more far-reaching. I think we’re on the cusp of that. And what’s exciting is that SOCAP is highlighting some of that this year in a way that I think will be very important.”