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Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

Community & Place Democratic Ownership

Why is the Pluralist Commonwealth an American system?

William Appleman Williams, in his system-challenging book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, insisted that at the heart of American foreign policy was a “very powerful and dangerous propensity to define the essentials of American welfare in terms of activities outside the United States.” The imperialist thrust of American behavior on the world stage, for Williams, stemmed from the need to access markets on a larger and larger global scale, driven by the growth imperative at the heart of a capitalist economy. What was and is ‘tragic,’ about this, Williams held, was that this economic priority in practice commonly subverted (and continues to subvert) genuine American ideals of democracy for ourselves as well as others.

My own historical work on the reasons behind the decision of senior US political leadership to inexcusably use atomic weapons against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unfolded within this frame—as an attempt to come to terms with the dynamics of a system that ultimately came to justify such brutal “atomic diplomacy,” even as many top World War II military leaders, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, publicly denounced the morality of the decision. My experience as a Legislative Director in the U.S. Senate at the time of the dubiously supported Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that created the basis for America’s entry into the Vietnam War deepened my awareness of just how dangerous the current structure of power is both domestically and internationally.

There is much to be learned from experiments around the world with new forms of economic development and political governance. It is also certain that capitalism is global, and that any program for real transformation needs to come to terms with global inequities and the role of globalized trade. But I believe that, in general, we have, first and foremost a responsibility to act where we are—and that Americans have a special responsibility here, as inhabitants of the most powerful corporate capitalist nation in the history of the world. Our task—and it is by no means small—is to transform the economic system of this nation, displacing the economic engine of global expansion and the power relationships it creates and sustains. Thus, the development of the Pluralist Commonwealth, here in the United States, is not just a matter of making our economic and political system more fair and more just, but an essential long-term act of international solidarity. Our foreign policy will not change until we change.

What resources for a Pluralist Commonwealth can be found in the American tradition?

It is true that the United States has little recent historical experience with alternative ownership paradigms, explicitly framed as such. However, the history of populist development has left a much larger mark on the contours of American political economy than most realize. From the municipal socialists of cities like Milwaukee to the largely PUBLIC and COOPERATIVE history of rural electrification, there is deep tradition of practical, community-based ownership of important economic sectors. Twenty percent of American electric generation, for instance, is currently produced and distributed by municipally owned utilities or cooperatives;1 over 100 million Americans are members of one or another cooperative;2 and there are many, many more such practical on-the-ground examples (as we shall shortly explore).

More deeply, we should not ignore the specific challenges and opportunities American CULTURE offers for the development of a thoroughgoing systemic alternative. Localism and DECENTRALIZATION has a specific appeal to Americans that larger, national-level forms of public ownership like those often embraced in many European countries may not. Likewise, deeply held values around entrepreneurialism and self-sufficiency may point towards systemic alternatives grounded not in apocalyptic visions of class conflict, but in pragmatic, practical problem solving. We are a “roll up your sleeves and get it done” culture.

Clarifying the importance of multiple and pluralist forms of enterprise also allows us to recognize that even in cases where PUBLIC national or regional enterprise may be appropriate for very large-scale economic matters, they do not need to be the center of the system. There are currently more than 5.8 million employer firms in the United States; those which employ more than 5000 people account for a mere one-third of one percent of this total.3

See also:


Further reading

Martin Buber. Paths in Utopia, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966 [1949]).

William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009 [1959]).

Gar Alperovitz, “Socialism in America Is Closer Than You Think,” The Nation, February 11, 2016.

Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, 2nd ed. (Takoma Park, MD: Democracy Collaborative Press and Dollars & Sense, 2011).

Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995).

Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

More related work

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth: Introduction

If the design of corporate capitalism is unable to sustain values of equality, genuine democracy, liberty, and ecological sustainability as a matter of inherent systemic architecture, what systemic ‘design’ might ultimately achieve and sustain these values? read more


Why are current approaches to trade problematic? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth approach trade? What existing efforts point toward a sustainable and just trade regime? read more


How do modern researchers understand the deeper sources of economic abundance and technological change? How should the fruits of our common technological inheritance be distributed now and in future? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth deploy management of new technologies in new ways? read more


Why consider long term regional devolution of power? How might long term devolution to regionalist patterns operate in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some on-the-ground developments that suggest possibilities for the future of regionalism? read more


Why must the United States confront its long history of systemic racism? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth begin to promote racial equality? What on-the-ground efforts can be seen working towards our future of collective liberation? read more


Why are new forms of public economic institutions important at certain critical levels of scale in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are the key challenges for public ownership? Where are communities organizing elements of public ownership in the economy? read more


Why is the idea of prehistory important for thinking about systemic change? Are we in the prehistory of genuine systemic change, the prehistory of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is pluralism an important value for systemic design? What makes a pluralist commonwealth “pluralist,” and why are more complex forms sometimes important? Where can we see pluralism in action today? read more


What is the role of planning in our present economic system? How would planning function in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where are new models of decentralized and more participatory planning being explored today? read more


Why is ownership a key determinant of system structure? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth democratize ownership? Where is ownership being transformed in the direction of a Pluralist Commonwealth today? read more


How is money created in the current system? How is money created in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where can we see key elements of a new approach to monetary policy emerging today? read more


What’s wrong with markets, and why do we still need them? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth use markets to sustain communities? Where are examples of markets that remain subject to democratic control operative today? read more


What is liberty? Why must liberty be a central part of the design for the pluralist commonwealth? Where is a renewed conception of liberty being developed on the ground today? read more


Why is investment in the current system fundamentally undemocratic and unsustainable? How would a Pluralist Commonwealth democratize investment? Where is investment managed in more democratic directions today? read more


Why must we factor gender equity into the institutional design of the next political and economic system? What kinds of structures would a Pluralist Commonwealth use to support true gender equality? Where are important elements of a more gender equitable system being built today? read more

Evolutionary Reconstruction And Displacement

How do evolutionary reconstruction and displacement of corporate power differ from “countervailing” strategies of containment and regulation? Why are evolutionary reconstruction and displacement key strategic approaches in the building of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is equality a key part of the Pluralist Commonwealth? How is movement towards equality achieved in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What examples prefigure equality as envisioned in the Pluralist Commonwealth? read more

Economic Growth

Why is growth a challenging problem? How Would the Pluralist Commonwealth Manage Growth? Where can we see on the ground efforts to tackle the growth question today? read more
Economic Change

Economic Change

How does economic change really occur locally and nationally? How, specifically, can we build upon the ways cities and states already foster the local economy to create the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some examples of shifts toward greater democracy? read more

Ecological Sustainability

Why is pluralism necessary to guarantee ecologically sustainable ends? What are the key strategies for environmental protection in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


What is democracy? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth build stronger foundations for democratic life? Where are more participatory systemic directions being prototyped and developed today? read more


Why is decentralization a key principle of system design? What are the limits of decentralization? What are some contemporary developments in the direction of decentralization? read more


Why is culture a key part of the pluralist commonwealth? What are the most important strategies for building such a culture? What are some examples of the development of the cultural transformations toward democratic society at work today? read more


What are cooperatives? What role do cooperatives play in a Pluralist Commonwealth? Where else is this systemic direction for cooperatives being prototyped and explored today? read more


Why is community important to the pluralist commonwealth? What are institutional mechanisms aimed at undergirding rather than undermining community in a Pluralist Commonwealth? What current developments point towards the restoration of community as a central category? read more


What does it mean to hold wealth in common? Why is wealth held in common and democratized at various scales, so important for the design of a next system? What are some examples of how “common wealth” builds a “commonwealth” today? read more

Climate Change

What are the challenges presented by global climate change? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth tackle ecological threats such as climate change? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is bureaucracy problematic? What can be done in a pluralist commonwealth to minimize necessary bureaucracy? What contemporary interventions or potential interventions illustrate democratic control of large-scale entities? read more