An Economic and Cultural Alternative

“What’s the alternative?” Progressive activists critical of our corporate-dominated system are often confronted with this question by those we are trying to reach.

Our answers to this question vary. Some of us might answer, “socialism.” Other would say, “decentralized, worker/consumer control.” Still others would emphasize beefed-up and adequately-funded government regulation. Some would describe the alternative as “economic democracy;”
others would call for “public ownership and democratic control.”

Debate over these, and other, alternative visions is increasingly on the agenda for the progressive, pro-justice movement. This is so because, as the new century begins, our voices are more and more being heard, as evidenced by “the battle in Seattle” and the emerging Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke Green Party Presidential campaign.

What would most of us agree upon as far as a people-oriented alternative to our existing corporate capitalist economy? At the risk of over-simplification, I would suggest the following:

-*Big* business is downsized; although in some instances, as in air travel or telecommunications, forms of national or international organization are necessary, we should decentralize economic life as much as possible.

-The health, safety and life-enhancing needs of workers, consumers and the environment have priority at least equal to a business’ need for a reasonable profit, and priority so much over business super-profits as to make super-profits the exception rather than the rule.

-We must de-link the connection between wealth and power; one person, one voice/vote/ability to organize!

-The extremes of obscene wealth and grinding poverty in the world must be dramatically narrowed.

-Economic development must be environmentally-friendly and sustainable.

-We would end all speculative investments which risk, distort or undercut people-oriented and environmentally-friendly economic life.

-There must be economic planning or regulation of some kind to minimize waste, inefficiencies and health risks and maximize positive economic development.

In my view the major area in which there is disagreement over how to reach these common objectives has to do with whether one supports government/public ownership and planning of economic life as our main objective or, conversely, enhanced opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses and cooperatives to become the dominant economic form.

The critique of the pro-small business approach is that it continues economic competition, rather than cooperation, as a fundamental underlying principle. This would be the case, so the argument goes, even if the small businesses were increasingly small-business cooperatives.
There might be cooperation within the coop but outside it, there would of necessity be competition with other businesses to attract more buyers of the particular product. Over time, the natural tendency would be for those privately- and cooperatively-owned businesses to struggle to become bigger and more focused on the profit-making bottom line. Such steps would be seen as necessary to keep the business alive, which would get us right back into a similar set-up as what we are faced with today.

The critique of the public ownership approach was eloquently and cogently posed by Albert Einstein, himself a socialist, in an essay, “Why Socialism?,” published in Monthly Review magazine in 1949: “It is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”

So what’s the solution?

We can’t separate economic development from cultural and social development. To achieve a society governed by principles of justice and democracy, in all their aspects, we need to be about the process now, not later, of creating a popular culture linked to a growing social/political movement which practices what it preaches. If we say we are against racism and sexism, we need to consciously unlearn them so that we are able to truly build relationships of equality and respect across race and gender lines. If we say we want a world based on cooperation and not individualistic competition, we need to model that new world by building respectful alliances across organizational and constituency lines. And if we are serious about democracy we need to outgrow the turf and ego games which belong in the past.

If we do these kinds of things, questions related to the reorganization of economic life will be seen in their proper light. Because we are about something new, something qualitatively superior to the dominant corporate culture of today, once our broadly-based people’s movement has gained political power, we will be in a position to figure out with the people of this country the proper mix of private and public, national, international and local. If we take our values seriously, over time they will be reflected within all of our institutions, including economic ones.