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Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

Democracy & Governance

What is democracy?

All too often we assume that we really know what a living democratic society looks like—but democracy is more of a project than a static set of formal political arrangements having to do with a trip to a voting booth once every year or two. Indeed, we should take the phrase “laboratories of democracy” (describing the local innovation that helped set terms of reference for key elements of the New Deal) seriously. Democracy is not a rigid end-point, but an ongoing experiment, deepened and preserved through engagement and innovation.

In the spirit of traditional theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill—and modern writers like Benjamin Barber, Jane Mansbridge (and, in certain areas, anarchist-oriented theorists like Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky)—the Pluralist Commonwealth vision rests firmly on the principle that, over the long haul, rebuilding local democracy with a small d, from the bottom up, is a necessary requirement of renewing the basis of meaningful Democracy with a big D in the political-economic system as a whole.

In particular, it is striking that in our ostensibly democratic society, the vast majority of Americans spend 8 hours a day in an institution where they leave their democratic rights at the door—the workplace. With private capital largely calling the tune in terms of what workers do at work and what the results of that work are (not to mention the consequences for the larger community), our “democracy” leaves a lot to be desired. This is to say nothing of the fact that large corporations and wealthy owners spend inordinate amounts of money on elections and lobbying to make sure that “democracy” reflects their interests irrespective of the will of the people in general.

How does the Pluralist Commonwealth build stronger foundations for democratic life?

The Pluralist Commonwealth emphasizes democracy at all levels, with a commitment to participatory decision making at all scales. The principle of subsidiarity, or moving decision making to the smallest level possible to encourage meaningful individual participation, should be applied. (See, in particular, REGIONALISM.) Again, how the society allocates time is important. It is hard to participate if you must work two jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over your children’s heads. (See LIBERTY.) Above all, the Pluralist Commonwealth model doesn’t arbitrarily limit democracy to the “political” sphere, but extends it to the economy as well. For instance, a worker COOPERATIVE is able to self-manage its own workplace in a democratic fashion. This is an important foundational change. However, beyond the enterprise, public, democratic control and oversight over the allocation of INVESTMENT capital becomes a further requirement of a genuinely participatory approach. The Pluralist Commonwealth model also recognizes that a truly democratic society has as its precondition a more democratic distribution of income and wealth (see OWNERSHIP) as necessary for broad participation and influence in decision-making to become meaningful.

Where are more participatory systemic directions being prototyped and developed today?

It is important to recognize that many of our economic institutions are, in fact, already democratic—at least on paper. For instance, there are more than 6500 credit unions in the US, all ostensibly run on a one-member, one-vote basis. In some places, activists looking for more transformational engagement from these financial institutions have run campaigns to activate existing board members and elect new members to replace members with a narrow and less democratic approach to the possibilities offered by the institution.

In addition to the many expanded, new forms of cooperative business noted above (See COOPERATIVES), we are also seeing a great deal of interest in new forms of workplace democracy. Unions like the United Auto Workers, for instance, have begun to explore co-management, in which workers receive formal seats on corporate boards. (Local 42 of the union has worked to establish a “works council” at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, and a degree of co-management was instituted by the UAW and GM and the Saturn plant before it closed in 2009.)1 Many other companies, especially in high-tech sectors, are developing innovative structures for flat or “horizontal” management, where workers engage directly with each other to co-manage the enterprise.2

Elsewhere participatory budgeting in which community residents are given direct democratic control over the allocation of limited amounts of public funds—is currently being experimented with in many US cities. The trend represents an important acknowledgement of the limits of purely representational local governance and the need to test out new strategies of direct citizen involvement. In Europe and elsewhere, “liquid democracy,” in which people are free to delegate responsibility for making different kinds of decisions to different groups, and crowd-sourced participatory policy development and internet-based decision making at the party level, particularly in Spain, are experimental innovations that push past the confines of a purely parliamentary model.3

See also:


Further reading

Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright, Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (New York, NY: Verso, 2003).

Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversarial Democracy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Paul Adler and Charles Heckscher, The Firm as a Collaborative Community: Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006).e

Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

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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


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


Why is the Pluralist Commonwealth an American system? What resources for a Pluralist Commonwealth can be found in the American tradition? read more