Envisioning an evolutionary path toward a democratic economy

It is never sufficient in itself to be against something. Activists seeking to bring a better world into being have to be for something. That is no easy task for people advocating for something better than today’s world of corporate domination, harsh austerity and races to the bottom.

It is not an easy task because capitalists have saturated the world’s cultures with their ideologies, and the 20th century’s biggest anti-capitalist challenge — state ownership of the means of production on the model of the Soviet Union and its Central European satellite states — has irretrievably lost credibility. Yet the capitalist triumphalism that smoothly maintains nothing could possibly be wrong with our modern consumer paradise, which continues essentially unabated despite four years and counting of deep malaise, can not mask profound structural problems.

The endless drive on the part of capitalists to increase profits that leads to continual movements of production to new sources of cheaper labor; the continual downward pressure on wages that leads to an inability of people to be able to buy what is produced; the continual despoiling of the environment under the pressure of ever more intense competition; and the finiteness of the Earth’s resources in the face of a structural need for limitless expansion all impose limits on the capitalist system.

Grandiose plans to strip-mine the Moon and the asteroid belt aside, humanity will have to develop a more stable, more humanistic system of production and consumption. A realistic plan to guide the world out of runaway capitalism and into a new system that is sustainable is necessary.

Can such a sustainable, more humanistic system evolve out of capitalism itself? Gar Alperovitz, in his newly re-issued book America Beyond Capitalism,* firmly believes the answer is yes.

A plan to gradually reign in corporate power

Explicitly attempting to find an intermediate course between reform and revolution, Professor Alperovitz has laid out a program designed to gradually bring large corporations under public control and therefore make them socially accountable through a “Public Trust” system whereby public institutions buy progressively larger portions of corporations’ stock. Concomitantly, cooperatively owned enterprises rooted in their communities and enterprises owned by local governments would be nurtured; community-development organizations expanded and funded through progressive taxation; and long-term strategies would be implemented to capture the new wealth that will be created as productivity continues to increase in the future.

Details of many of these plans are not yet worked out. The details of a better world can only be worked out in its creation, and therefore Professor Alperovitz provides conceptions rather than details. New ideas have to begin somewhere — conceptions based on real-world conditions are the beginning place for serious ideas. Is the professor’s optimism warranted? That is a difficult question to answer, and one that this review will return to presently.

Professor Alperovitz introduces the term “Pluralist Commonwealth” to encompass his ideas of leveraging the structures of modern capitalism for a transition to a democratic, decentralized system in which the wealth created in production would be distributed fairly; economic power has been wrested from a small class of capitalists so that economic and political power is no longer concentrated; and the length of the workweek is gradually reduced so that everybody has the time and opportunity to participate in community decision-making.

None of the pieces of the Pluralist Commonwealth system constitute leaps or revolutionary breaks. Instead, the author assembles an impressive collection of ideas and institutions already in existence; ideas for building upon these; proposals for new institutions and structures that flow out of existing ones; and concrete measures to break down racial, gender and other disparities. He is not shy about analyzing an ideologically diverse collection of thinkers and writers: In one three-paragraph stretch, for instance, he quotes favorably Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, Jane Jacobs and W.E.B. DuBois.

But fear not those of you who blanch at the mere mention of neoliberal godfather Hayek (a number that would include myself). Professor Alperovitz has assembled a damning array of statistics to illustrate the debilitating inequality of the United States — among them, that one percent of U.S. households hold half of the entire country’s wealth; that corporate taxes accounted for 35 percent of federal receipts in 1945 but only seven percent in 2003; and that 300 multi-national corporations account for 25 percent of the world’s productive assets. With such concentrations of economic power comes instability at the community level because corporate power can shutter enterprises that are depended on for jobs, he writes:

“A central question concerns the economic underpinnings of local democracy. It is obvious, for instance, that active citizen participation in local community efforts is all but impossible if the economic rug is regularly pulled out from under them. What, precisely, is ‘the community’ when citizens are forced to move in and out of specific geographic localities because of volatile local economic conditions? Who has any real stake in long-term decisions? That a substantial degree of economic stability is one of the critical preconditions of local involvement is documented in several important studies. …

A related issue involves the power relationships that set the terms of reference for municipal government. Numerous scholarly studies have demonstrated that local government decision making commonly is heavily dominated by the local business community. Commonly, too, the thrust of decisions favorable to business groups radically constrains all other choices. The use of scarce resources to develop downtown areas, and especially to attract or retain major corporations, inevitably absorbs funds that might alternatively be used to help low- and moderate-income neighborhood housing, schools, and community services.” [page 47]

That the vast size and reach of corporations is debilitating to democracy is obvious; Professor Alperovitz even quotes conservatives to that effect. But he goes beyond the size of gigantic enterprises to the gigantic size of the United States, arguing that the very size of the U.S. (and its projected population increase this century) is a hinderance to democracy as well. He asks:

“[I]s it really feasible — in systemic and foundational terms — to sustain such values [equality, liberty and democracy] in a very large-scale, centrally governed continental system that spans almost three thousand miles and includes almost 300 million people? And, if not, how might a democratic nation ultimately be conceived?” [page 63]

Organizing on a regional, rather than national, level

Following up on this idea later in the book, he concludes that the “regional” level would be the appropriate level to deal with economic and political issues. Most U.S. states contain too small a population to solve large problems on their own; Professor Alperovitz conceives a region as the equivalent of a large-population state such as California or Texas, or a group of states such as New England, seeing such large states or groupings as the equivalent of stable, midsized European Union countries such as the Netherlands.

Underlying this advocation of regionalization is the idea that decentralization is more conducive to local democracy. To support his argument, he cites U.S. Supreme Court decisions overturning federal laws in favor of state powers and the increasing assertiveness of state governments in challenging federal laws.

But here we should pause for further thought. That trend, if anything, is stronger than when America Beyond Capitalism was originally written in 2005, but these Supreme Court decisions have been ideological and political pronouncements backing conservative attacks on federal protections, not legal decisions or responses to popular pressure. Frequently, the court strikes down state laws that provide protections beyond federal law but that are opposed by the Right on ideological grounds.

Both political devolution, as a concept, and Professor Alperovitz’s contention that democracy can’t flourish unless it is strong at the local level are sound, but it is at our peril that we fail to distinguish properly between the current conservative campaign to impose an extremist agenda masquerading under the guise of “states’ rights” and a genuine grassroots movement to promote local control and progressive change.

The heart of America Beyond Capitalism’s concept of economic and political democracy is the “Pluralist Commonwealth.” The author, in broad strokes, provides an interesting, worked-out conception of gradually bringing large-scale corporations under public control through acquisitions of their stock. There is a clear goal in mind:

“The schematic model … prioritizes a variety of strategies to undergird local economies and thereby establish conditions favorable to nurturing local civil society associations and to increasing local government’s power to make meaningful decisions. Partly to achieve such local democracy objectives — but for much larger reasons as well — the model also projects the development over time of new ownership institutions, including locally anchored worker-owned and other community-benefiting firms, on the one hand, and various national wealth-holding, asset-based strategies, on the other. These would ultimately take the place of current elite and corporate ownership of the preponderance of large-scale capital.” [page 70-71]

These ideas come with a freely offered, and appropriate, caveat that the details need to be worked out. Nonetheless, the strategy of carrying out a program of bringing large corporations under public control through acquiring controlling blocks of their stock could have been articulated with greater clarity. At the national level, a new institution given the generic name “Public Trust” is conceived to “oversee the investment of stock on behalf of the public, as state and other pension boards commonly do today.” Proceeds could be directed toward individuals, local or higher-level governments, or funding of public services.

Professor Alperovitz projects that:

“Over time, a fundamental shift in the ownership of wealth would slowly move the nation as a whole toward great equality directly — through, for instance, worker-owned enterprises; and also indirectly — through a flow of funds from the larger asset-based strategies and investment on behalf of the public.” [page 71]

The capital needed to acquire the stock of large corporations would be assembled from higher taxation of elite incomes and from setting up public banks that would loan money that would accrue from profits and dividends of stock held by them.

“The Pluralist Commonwealth structurally tethers large-scale firms at the top by lodging stock ownership in a Public Trust entity accountable to (and open to scrutiny by) the public — and it steadily expands four major vectors of activity and structure (robust community democracy, steadily increasing free time, greater citizen equality, regional decentralization) that over the long haul offer expanding opportunities for democratic control from the bottom. Additional elements of the model include new public chartering requirements, the addition of specific stakeholders to corporate boards, and the democratization of corporate structures from within.” [pages 73-74]

Cooperatives and local-government ownership

In addition to the gradual assumption of control of large corporations envisioned above, the book also advocates worker-owned cooperatives (which can be anchored to local institutions such as hospitals and universities that can steadily buy the cooperatives’ goods and services); companies owned by municipal and state governments (utilities and banks are common examples that provide lower rates and profits to their communities); and community-development organizations (which operate a variety of businesses that plow proceeds back into their communities).

Each of the examples in the above paragraphs already exist, and can be expanded. City-owned power companies are already common and generally offer lower rates than traditional companies. A network of cooperatives anchored to local institutions have been successful in Cleveland, and larger, freestanding cooperatives exist in a myriad of industries.

A significant change in the political climate of the United States would be a pre-condition of the “Pluralist Commonwealth” coming to fruition. Citing an abundance of polls, Professor Alperovitz is optimistic that latent public support exists for such ideas. He also believes that the mounting costs of health care, Social Security and retirement in general will force a re-thinking of existing structures and ideas, bringing to the fore new concepts of ownership and control.

The “Pluralist Commonwealth” concept rests in part on the vast increases in wealth and productivity of the past century and a half to continue throughout the 21st century. That, too, should give us pause for thought. The author, on the one hand, unsparingly points out the unsustainability of U.S. consumption but on the other hand situates his wealth-sharing strategy within a forecast of the dramatic growth of capitalism to continue unabated.

He notes the sixfold increase in per-capita production during the course of the 20th century, and projects a similar sixfold increase for the 21st century that would result in a cornucopia of wealth for everyone. Is another such leap possible? Given that natural resources are, or are soon to be, dwindling, and that successive introductions of machinery tend to yield declining rates of increase in productivity, it is reasonable to doubt the mature capitalism of today will produce the same gains for another century. The ongoing stagnation of the advanced capitalist countries, and that the strongest growth is invariably found in developing economies, adds additional doubt.

Then again, there is no reason why the wealth that exists today shouldn’t be shared far more equitably; if the present-day per-capita income were merely to keep pace with inflation or rise slowly, there would be plenty to go around.

Could such a peaceful evolution really work?

Earlier, I asked if the optimism behind the “Pluralist Commonwealth” is warranted. The thought that kept leaping at me is this: The program, particularly as regards to the steady acquisition of stock in large corporations so that control of them is wrested from executives and speculators and given to the public, is dependent on capitalists sitting back and letting their power be taken away. There is absolutely no precedent of any capitalist class acting that way, and none would willingly consent to it.

Such a peaceful evolution would require not only a suite of new laws, it would also require huge organization, mass mobilizations and a very large majority that would retain their energies and motivation for long periods of time, perhaps decades. As just one example, corporations would have to be forced to issue new stock that would be sold to the Public Trust — a system-altering concept that would require an extremely powerful movement. Such a movement can easily be conceived, and would be articulating a concrete goal that is tangible and imaginable as a linear evolution from present-day economic structures.

It is possible to argue that powerful movements are also a necessary precondition for a revolution to be successful. Could the aim be higher? Could a successful completion of an evolutionary program build momentum for still greater changes? That is unknowable today. But the “Pluralist Commonwealth” program has the concrete benefit of providing a positive program of change. If there is to be any meaningful change it will have to come as a result of great struggle.

That acknowledgment is not missing from America Beyond Capitalism. Professor Alperovitz writes that people must “confront the emerging logic that suggests that either economic pain and social decay will continue” [page 213] or that diverse groups begin work on long-term systemwide change. He is appropriately realistic on the need for a high level of activism and organization to bring his ideas to fruition, while at the same time offering a set of concrete goals. Although the precedents are not a snug fit because transcending capitalist relations threatens the roots of the economic system (and those who profit well from it) in a way that social movements do not, he draws on the experiences of past struggles to conclude on an optimistic note:

“Long before the civil rights movement, there were many years of hard, quiet, dangerous work by those who came before. Long before the feminist explosion there were those who labored to establish new principals in earlier decades. It is within the possibilities of our own time in history that — working together and openly charting an explicit new course — this generation can establish the necessary foundations for an extraordinary future and for the release of new energies.

It may even be that far-reaching change will come much earlier and much faster than many now imagine.” [page 240]

Regardless if the transcending of capitalism is accomplished through a revolution, through struggling to rebuild in the ruins after a collapse or through an evolutionary change as envisioned in America Beyond Capitalism, a long, organized struggle will be necessary. The sooner the task begins, the less dangerous and difficult (comparatively) the change should be: Organizing change today is a hard enough task; having to do so in conditions of total collapse would be a nightmarish task none of us would like to contemplate.

* Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, second edition [Democracy Collaborative Press, Takoma Park, Maryland, USA and Dollars and Sense, Boston 2011]

8 comments on “Envisioning an evolutionary path toward a democratic economy

  1. Alcuin says:

    Sorry, but my reaction to these ideas is just more “pie-in-the-sky”. If a Public Trust were ever established, it would very soon be co-opted by the very elite that it was meant to undermine. I’d like to suggest a book for you to read: Social Dominance, by Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto. I found it very enlightening. It isn’t very optimistic (some say that it is bleak in its outlook), but I think it is quite realistic. It isn’t terribly easy to read, since it is full of statistical proofs, but I was able to grasp the main points. You might also investigate another (and I think complementary) theory, called social justification theory.

    • “Optimism of the will pessimism of the intellect” as Antonio Gramsci said. Professor Alperovitz’s intention was to devise a course of action intermediate between reform and revolution; how realistic such a course could be owing to its long-term nature and, as I wrote, that it would require capitalist rulers to allow themselves to be co-opted, is a legitimate question. Or we could conceptualize the program as a “transitional demand” in a Trotskyist sense — it raises demands that the system can’t handle, thereby raising the temperature. Is that realistic? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

      What I think is useful about America Beyond Capitalism is that it presents a conceptualized program, something tangible at a time when reform is futile and revolution is not on the horizon. My own view is that a mass movement strong enough to bring such a program to fruition would likely go beyond it — a society intent on transcending capitalism might well come to see to see the program as a “halfway” measure and go on to seize control of giant corporations and break them up, particularly if the growth of cooperatives from below has accelerated as the program also envisions. Nonetheless, we do have to start somewhere, and it is rare for a concrete program to be offered by activists opposed to the capitalist system.

      As I am unfamiliar with Social Dominance, is it possible for what sounds like a very complex work to be summarized briefly? So many books, so little time …

  2. Alcuin says:

    Yes, so many books, so little time. Without having read America Beyond Capitalism, I can’t comment on the plan that it lays out, but I’ve read more than my share of books that seem to offer similar plans, starting with Small is Beautiful way back in the early 1970s. But nothing ever seems to change – things just get worse and worse. So I swore off of such books and started seeking answers for our predicament in theories that are grounded in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Why, I wanted to know, is sanity always shimmering so far in the distance? Why do seemingly rational people (and I’m guilty of that – I voted for Obama) embrace such charlatans as Obama and Romney? A good friend of mine has hammered me for years and years that the answer lies in examining hierarchy and that is what Social Dominance does. The core thesis of the book is that when a society evolves enough to generate an economic surplus, hierarchy will arise. Thus, all societies more complex than hunter-gatherer societies exhibit hierarchy (and even hunter-gatherer societies do, too!).

    “SDT begins with the basic observation that all human societies tend to be structured as systems of group-based social hierarchies. At the very minimum, this hierarchical social structure consists of one or a small number of dominant and hegemonic groups at the top and one or a number of subordinate groups at the bottom. Among other things, the dominant group is characterized by its possession of a disproportionately large share of positive social value, or all those material and symbolic things for which people strive. Examples of positive social value are such things as political authority and power, good and plentiful food, splendid homes, the best available health care, wealth, and high social status. While dominant groups possess a disproportionately large share of positive social value, subordinate groups possess a disproportionately large share of negative social value, including such things as low power and social status, high-risk and low-status occupations, relatively poor health care, poor food, modest or miserable homes, and severe negative sanctions (e.g. prison or death sentences.)

    “After making the observation that human social systems are structured as group-based social hierarchies, SDT then attempts to identify the various mechanisms that produce and maintain this group-based social hierarchy and how these mechanisms interact.” (pp. 31-32)

    The authors then go on to outline what they call the “trimorphic structure of group-based social hierarchy”: an age system, a gender system, and an arbitrary-set system. “The arbitrary-set system is filled with socially constructed and highly salient groups based on characteristics such as clan, ethnicity, estate, nation, race, caste, social class, religious sect, regional grouping, or any other socially relevant group distinction that the human imagination is capable of constructing.” (p. 33)

    The authors then give examples of how the trimorphic structure works by giving details about housing, jobs, education, health care, and prisons.

    Part IV has a particularly interesting title: “Oppression as a Cooperative Game”.

    It seems as though SDT hasn’t “caught on” very well and it has been victimized by academic turf wars, but I thought it was very interesting and, combined with studying social justification theory, I think it explains a great deal of what we witness on an every day basis. After years of reading about daily horrors, I wanted to find a place where I could understand what was going on instead of merely react to what was going on. I wanted to climb down the tree populated by my choir, which was shouting at choirs in other trees, calling them idiots (and worse) and walk out of the forest to gain a vantage point to see all of the trees, not just the few close by. Social Dominance has helped me do that.

    I recommend it as a starting point for further investigation, not as the answer.

    • Thank you for providing us with a concise summary of what sounds like a complex and interesting book. I certainly agree that there is never any one answer. Marxism, among other systems of thought, has been misused as a formula that provides all answers, which it is not. Nothing is. But although the history of humanity is a history of social oppression, human nature is made up of many parts, cooperation being as natural as competition, contrary to standard capitalist ideology.

      Can we imagine an economic system in which cooperation is rewarded rather than competition, in which hierarchy and dominance based on group characteristics is eliminated? I think we have to imagine such a system and find a way to construct it. Not that all human problems would end; but the contradictions that would arise in such a higher, cooperative state (let’s call it “socialism” for lack of an alternative) will have to be managed by our descendants living in it since we today could not know what those problems will be.

      You write that “The core thesis of the book is that when a society evolves enough to generate an economic surplus, hierarchy will arise.” Other theories tend to reverse that, arguing that scarcities create the hierarchies. Given that cause and effect so frequently radiate back and forth, I think it is fair to speculate that there is a complex feedback loop between these two basic directions. Scarcity and threat of scarcity have been much more prevalent in human history than stable surplus. And it is not unknown for a hierarchy to arise to create a surplus — racism, for instance, was invented to justify New World slavery, which was escalated to generate vast surpluses. Having said that, I do find the thesis of Social Dominance quite interesting and, without knowing anything about it other than what you have just written, there surely is considerable room for its ideas in a well-constructed model of the modern state of the world.

      Erich Fromm’s classic work, Escape From Freedom, is an outstanding effort at synthesizing the sociological and psychological aspects of the attraction to hierarchical and authoritarian structures with materialist and economic conditions. Although he was specifically writing with the rise of Nazism in mind, the book is broadly applicable today. We shouldn’t neglect all factors if we are going to understand the modern world — and what would be a better one.

      I am convinced that this will be the last century for capitalism as we know it – infinite expansion isn’t possible. The system that comes next could be better or it could be worse. If we don’t begin to work out today what better world we would like to see tomorrow, then tomorrow will likely be something none of us would want to see.

  3. Alcuin says:

    What theories argue “that scarcities create the hierarchies”? What Social Dominance posits is that once the Agricultural Revolution occurred, enough surplus was generated to allow for the existence of classes of people who did not have to spend the largest part of their time devoted to finding sustenance. I think that idea is widely accepted.

    Social Dominance tends to have an orientation towards a genetic bias (inclusive fitness) as an explanation for human behavior. A more balanced approach might lie in the field of evolutionary psychology or dual inheritance theory. If you are interested in the latter, do a search on P. J. Richerson or Robert T. Boyd. If you are interested in social justification theory, the name to search for is John T. Jost.

    I really wonder about your statement that “racism, for instance was invented to justify New World slavery …” Surely, on second thought, you will admit that such a statement was hastily written. Racism is a social construct vastly older than the era of New World slavery.

    Capitalism, in my opinion, is hierarchy writ large. As long as the issue of hierarchy remains unaddressed, we will be in for difficult times. Yes, humans can be cooperative. What has to happen is that cooperation has to be seen as a more viable means of survival than competition.
    SDT posits the existence of two methods of dealing with hierarchy: hierarchy enhancement (HE) and hierarchy attentuation (HA). Going forward, HA is going to have to gain the upper hand and that will happen either violently or non-violently. How that happens is up to the capitalist class, represented by Obama and Romney.

  4. JAH says:

    Systemic Disorder and Alcuin,
    Thanks for your insightful commentaries and debate.

    The “Prime Alpha Male” acquisition/dominance mode that got humanity through the last Ice Age is so clearly unsuited to our future evolutionary progress that if we are not to experience continuing global cycles of “boom and bust” we must hope for the emergence of the “Prime ETHICAL Alpha Male”.

    “Lead, follow, get out of the way, or, resist!” as needs be, but as an entity
    that shares, that allows “each to become all they are capable of becoming”.

    Continue the struggle ………………

    • Alcuin, the belief that “enough surplus was generated to allow for the existence of classes of people who did not have to spend the largest part of their time devoted to finding sustenance” after the development of agriculture is accepted, but also isn’t reducible only to that. Very often, drought or floods caused scarcity, and a common solution was to conquer some other people, take their production and land, and reduce them to subordinate status.

      And how did the members of the dominant class come to dominate and arrogate to themselves the surplus produced by others? Ancient history is not my field, but there is a chicken-or-egg problem here: Did hierarchy spontaneously arise out of primitive hunter-gatherer societies, leading to the development of agriculture and agricultural surpluses, or did primitive societies remain without hierarchy (excepting gender binaries that likely existed) but later develop hierarchies after the development of agriculture? If the latter, did the surplus itself (and debate over how to distribute the surplus) create the hierarchy, or did any early surplus later become scarcity when conditions turned bad and there wasn’t enough food for everybody, causing the rise of social divisions? Or was agriculture itself an answer to an existing scarcity? Was there a stable surplus after the development of agriculture or was scarcity a repeated phenomenon after the agricultural revolution, causing social divisions?

      Whatever the answer(s), my point was simply that a comprehensive theory has to rest on multiple disciplines. Many Marxists made the mistake of over-simplifying theory by reducing everything to pure economics (something Engels already was forced to criticize), nor do we want to reduce everything to psychology or to a single master idea. (I am not suggesting you or Social Dominance are doing that.) The more elements we include the more likely we are to be able to formulate a viable theory.

      As to my statement on racism and New World slavery, what I wrote has been written by many before me. Yes, all sorts of hatreds existed long before capitalism and before New World slavery, and racism was one of those many hatreds. But slavery had not previously been justified through racism.

      “Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.” — Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, page 88 [Howard University Press, 1982].

      Walter Rodney wrote that racism was an integral part of capitalism because it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to European settlers’ accumulations of wealth. During the early colonial era, particularly in Virginia, White indentured servants and Black slaves helped each other escape and potentially could form a bloc big enough to overthrow the aristocracy. The aristocracy did all it could to divide the two, an effort that rested on developing a powerful ideology of racism and giving poor Whites a couple of crumbs. In turn, the aristocracy’s tight trip on coastal land forced poor Whites to move inland, setting up conflict with Native Americans, and fostering racism against Natives.

      Capitalism, feudalism, all forms of slave societies and etc. have all depended on exploitation of the many by the few, and so have needed deep social divisions, or hierarchy, to survive. I don’t believe it is simply a matter of “eliminating hierarchy” as hierarchy is the formal construction of social divisions that have roots in multiple causes, scarcity certainly among them. Nor is it a matter of looking at economic forms in isolation. As I said, your description of Social Dominance makes it sound quite interesting and useful. And while I agree with you that capitalism “is hierarchy writ large,” that hierarchy is specific to capitalist society. Would hierarchy dissolve with the replacement of capitalism by an unprecedented system of true political and economic democracy?

      Getting rid of hierarchy — or, looking at the problem in a larger way, getting rid of capitalism — will be up to us working people, although the level of violence will be determined by the capitalist class. The only time there is a “velvet revolution” is when the ruling class peacefully cedes power.

      • Alcuin says:

        Thank you for a most thorough reply. I enjoyed reading it. The core questions of your statement revolve around hierarchy, a concept that I am just now engaging with, in all of its complexity. I’ve not found a single source that helps me wrap my mind around the subject, but I will speculate that the existence of hierarchy is an adaptive trait that goes back to the dawn of time – before the existence of hunter-gatherer societies, even. I’m reading an interesting article from the journal Organizational Psychology Review, entitled A functional model of hierarchy: Why, how, and when vertical differentiation enhances group performance that seems to validate my speculations. “Vertical differentiation”, of course, is academic-speak for hierarchy. Hierarchies are useful constructs, but when they become distorted, as they have under capitalism, they become maladaptive. An abstract of the article is available on line and there is a link there to download the entire article as an Adobe pdf file, if you are interested.

        Based on what I’ve read so far, I don’t think it is possible to get rid of hierarchy, as so many on the Left would like to do. It appears that we are “wired” for hierarchy and that the solution is to educate ourselves about hierarchy and then harness it to achieve our goals. The Right is very comfortable with hierarchy; the Left is not. That needs to change.

        For an examination of how people justify the social order they live in, look at a preview on Amazon of Jost’s book, The Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification. The book is terribly expensive, as are all academic books, but I just might spring for this one.

        I would point out, in response to your statement that “[v]ery often, drought or floods caused scarcity, and a common solution was to conquer some other people, take their production and land, and reduce them to subordinate status” such an action indicates that hierarchy is already in place. Conquering another people requires a leader, does it not?

        In closing, I don’t believe that “hierarchy is specific to capitalist society”. Hierarchy won’t “dissolve with the replacement of capitalism” by some other economic system. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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