The Pluralist Commonwealth
Gar Alperovitz | September 3, 2016
In the video above, produced by Democracy Collaborative staff working with Softbox Films, I sketch the major institutions of a systemic alternative based in plural forms of democratic ownership, oriented around community at various scales—what I have called “The Pluralist Commonwealth.” Read on below for an article highlighting six strategic places to help make this systemic vision a reality, as well as an annotated transcript of the film’s narration with links to key resources. And be sure to visit pluralistcommonwealth.org for an archive of material diving deeper into various aspects of the model.
Six ways to build the pluralist commonwealth…
Many years ago—and especially while researching the history of the U.S. decision to use atomic weapons on the people of Japan—I came to understand that there was something deep at work in the American political and economic system driving it toward relentless expansion and a dangerous informal imperialism.
Could we imagine a system that undercuts the logic responsible for so much suffering at home and abroad?
It was reflections like these that brought me to first sketch the idea of a “pluralist commonwealth” in 1972—an economic and political system different from both corporate capitalism and state socialism grounded in democratic ownership, decentralization, and community.
While progress is never strictly linear, I believe that we are beginning to see an accelerating development of the foundations for a system that looks a lot like the Pluralist Commonwealth, and a growing recognition of how they begin to fit together. Here are six areas where it’s particularly strategic to be organizing and building institutional power in the current moment…
Annotated Video Transcript
America’s economic system has been generating massive wealth for those at the top while the rest of the nation faces stagnant income, explosive debt, mass incarceration, and the deterioration of our cities. The system also produces global warming and endless war.
How might we create a system that instead produces sustainability, democracy, peace? Fundamentally, it means changing who owns the country. If we can democratize wealth in a society where the richest 20 Americans alone control more wealth than the bottom half combined, we can democratize political power.
One design for a next system—what I call the Pluralist Commonwealth—helps clarify what we want, and how we get there. It takes a plural approach to building different forms of common wealth. Taken together, such forms create a practical, decentralized mosaic of a democratic economy to transform and displace the predatory, extractive elements of the current system.
Cooperatives, for example, are economic alternatives to top-down corporate workplaces. They address community needs instead of maximizing profits, and they bring democracy both to decision making and to the ownership of wealth. A hundred-and-thirty-million Americans are already involved in one or another kind of cooperative, and 10 million people work at employee-owned companies.
Some cities have also begun linking worker-owned firms together in community-building strategies. Such linked businesses can also provide goods and services to nonprofit institutions with billions of dollars in revenues, like hospitals, universities, and local governments. Unlike corporations, such institutions don’t pick up and leave, and this creates stable demand, helping stabilize worker-owned companies.
Such cities are engaged in a very decentralized form of economic planning. Planning, often controlled by corporations, is common in every advanced economy, but who makes the decision, how transparently, and for what aims, are key questions of system design. Planning starting at the level of the community keeps money circulating locally and ensures more stability. The Pluralist Commonwealth envisions joint ventures between community and worker groups and regional enterprises to handle larger-scale economic matters. Such publicly accountable institutions can eventually displace large corporations.
Participatory budgeting is another tool. It allows community members to vote on taxpayer-funded proposals. It also opens the way to thinking about participatory regional and national planning that one day could guide public investment in transportation, technology, and many other larger industries.
The Pluralist Commonwealth also includes nonprofit credit unions, community-development financial institutions, and city and state public banks that invest where private banks often won’t. Such an infrastructure can help build toward regional and national public-banking alternatives to Wall Street, banks capable of supporting regional plans, offsetting recessions, and averting financial crises and bailouts.
Taken together, the Pluralist Commonwealth creates interconnected structures, which, in the course of daily functioning, foster democratic, egalitarian, and ecological values. Companies that don’t grow endlessly means fewer carbon emissions or resource scrambles. Democratizing wealth ownership amplifies the voices of ordinary people in electoral politics. Planning allows people to allocate time and work more democratically, freeing up time for community involvement.
Step by step, the plural institutions of the Pluralist Commonwealth aim to transform America from the ground up, creating democratic foundations for a world that’s not threatened by climate change, inequality, and militarism. Building out from the communities to the state, regional, and ultimately the national level, the Pluralist Commonwealth envisions a decentralized and democratic country—and a sustainable planet for generations to come.