Organizational Capacity Building

Candace LaRue and Associates

#nei2012 Gar Alperovitz. Our Time in History: The Possibility of Fundamental System Change

on June 9, 2012

Summary of the last plenary of the conference – Gar Alperovitz and Alisa Gravitz, Our Time in History: The Possibility of Fundamental System Change

Introductions by Neva Goodwin.

Gar Alperovitz

We are beginning to get a sense that, just possibly, this is an historical occasion. Movements have moments, when they come together somehow, and people sense, just possibly, something shifted. This meeting, by change, by design, by hope, by inspiration, by knowledge, is possibly that moment. It is a time we will say, decades from now, I was there when it started. Just possibly we are laying the foundations for the next great transformation of a vast society, this may be the Pre-history when we lay the foundations of what make it possible for us to move “beyond”. That is a “heavy rap.” That existential question is at the heart if what we are talking about.

Secondly, we do not have any economic problem whatsoever in the United States. We have a massive political, institutional problem on how to manage the wealthiest economy there has every been. It is our problem as citizens who have not learned to manage the economy. There is $192,000 for every family of four, if divided equally. Over the last century, there was a 6 – 7 fold increased in wealth. If we cut the work week to 20 hours, we could still produce almost $100k for every family of four. This is our problem.

The period we have gone through until the mid 70s and 80s was the period when most people believed that the way forward was something like a pendulum or cyclical program. It would swing back and forth but would advance. We thought that things like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act would continue. But now we will not continue on that same tract, on that system. By and large that system allowed the institution of the large corporation to dominate the economy, balanced by politics (liberalism). At the heart of that system, we know, was the labor movement. That was the muscular institution without which you could not elect liberal congressmen or pass liberal legislation. That institution gave enough power to regulate, tax, and reform to a substantial degree. But the labor movement is dying before our eyes in the US. At its peak, 35% of Americans were unioinizex – not it is around 9%-11% and declining. Powers, like collecting dues, are being taken away. This is an institutional power base at the core of a whole regime of programs, and the structure is dying. Times will get worse before they get better. At the core of decline is an institutional problem, including many complex aspects such as racism.

what does that mean?

Obviously, we need to build a new movement, working with each other, reaching across boundaries. W need to build new institutions that can give power and muscle institutionally to our movement, we shall not overcome.

We have lived with two models of change. One is the pendulum swings – that one is decaying. The other model was system collapse and revolution. The second model, in this particular system in our time in history, is also unlikely. The government floor under the economy has increased, and eventually even the most conservatives become Keynesians and use the government to keep the economy from collapse. We tend to “remember the future” and this is a system that neither reforms or collapses in traditional terms. It is stalemated in the political power balances, and stagnating economically. Stalemate, stagnation, and decay – what an odd moment in history.

A paradoxical dynamic is that people wake up and say things like “something is really wrong”. They begin to say there is a profound problem, and we need to think there is something wrong. Climate change is only one part of it – unemployment is also critical. That moment when pele think something is wrong is a critical moment in history. Momentum and power matter more than ideas – except for sometimes, like when people know something is wrong and they want answers that make sense. This period is one where rethinking is possible. Being open to something new, looking at new projects, experiments, and ideas are all possible. An ongoing period of this kind allows us to learn and develop the new way forward where a collapse would not. A period of time where we can develop new things to become institutional, power, preliminaries of the next thing that we build.

The Cleveland model is one example produced through stagnation, stalemate, and decay. Oh has experienced this even earlier than the rest of the country, with the closing of steel mills. The steel workers and religious coalition said they should take over the steel mill and run it themselves. They created a plan, supported by the Carter administration, with a model that would have worked. They were promised a $100 million loan to do it, but they knew that might not come to fruition. They knew they needed to build the idea up even if they lost their battle. The national corporations and steel union went to Washington and fought against them, and the Ohio steelworkers did not get their money. But, in the state of Ohio, you will find more worker-owned companies than elsewhere, with a center at Kent State university to support this model. Nothing else was working, so people had to innovate or it would go down. The Cleveland model is built on a group of large scale worker owned corporations linked by revolving funds loans and a community non-profit, supported by the institutions left to us as the decay goes on, such as hospitals and community colleges. The model is not simply worker ownership, it is a community building strategy. The goal is also for companies to be green as possible. It has grown out of an evolutionary model and structure. It is being implanted in many cities now. A failure in a period of stagnation where nothing else is working, but that is innovated, can become a wealth-building model. Now the steel union is promoting worker ownership and co-ops. Other unions are changing their model to build institutions as well.

Models are beginning to evolve to build institutions as well as cultures and ideas. Our time in history is the time of the Pre-history, if we are self-conscious of who we are and what we are doing, Ideas matter sometimes, including ideas about who we think we are. Imagine yourself not as an activist, researcher, community builder, but as someone who is building history – an historical actor. My Heros in a different realm are the civil rights workers in mississippi in the 30-40s, when it was tough. They laid the foundations for a movement whose time came later.

There is a legacy to build on of institutions that allow us to displace power. For instance, in Cleveland, major corporations want something around $100-$200k to come in, and then they often leave. The mayor is in a difficult position because of the need for jobs. If these resources are voted to alternatives, and the political base is powerful, the corporations can be displaced. There are 130million Americans involved in credit unions and other co-ops. A credit union is a 1 person 1 vote bank. Why not use the power of credit union assets to build community – no one goes to the credit union board meetings, but people can come to the meetings and take over the credit union. People are building a structure to use these assets. Building up power allows you to displace institutions that have come before. Let’s build institutions that go in the way we want to go and give us the power to slowly displace corporations, build a better future with culture, ideas, and real on the ground institutions. Examples of institutional structure include around oil, health care, banking…when the health care system tilts, that will be a big piece moving in our direction.

We know there will be more banking crises, and when they go down they will be propped up probably the next time around. The big fish will eat the little fish, and we will be back to where we are. If the government is paying for it, then why not make the banking system public? W have not addressed the issue of scale. We like the little stuff and community stuff. We need to address what we think about scale. There are lots of good small businesses, and some good large businesses. What is their role in the next system? The problem is that businesses must grow, because otherwise they will be cut down by Wall Street. Ally business people will not stop the growth system. You cannot control the location of large corporations. Cities are being thrown away when corporations leave, because people follow them. That movement is very wasteful. You cannot do sustainability planning in unstable cities. What do you do about the “big guys”? You cannot control them with the old ones. They may need to be taken over, looking to some models from around the world and the New Deal.

That is our problem. We need to think in the next system, as we evolve toward it, what do we do about large corporations? There are good guys and allies, but they must grow.

Younger people are beginning to shed the stuff the grey hairs in the audience grew up with. They are not held back by the beliefs that there is no alternative to corporate capitalism. We are creative, localist, centralized odd birds and we create unique evolutionary reconstruction that is authentically American. We have a shot at building the basis of our next system. Possibly because of the paradox in our system we have the possibility of moving past models in Europe. We have the disability of a process building over time to lay down the institutional and cultural foundations that overcomes in our time in history.

There is a problem. The price is decades of your life. If you want to play “transform the system” those are the chips you have to throw on the table.


Spines to Gar.

What are the conditions for a just and sustainable society? There was a study group by Gar in DC on this topic. What are the conditions that would help make the change possible? Alisa brought her sister to the study circle about justice, and her sister was quiet the whole time. Later she said “I never thought about my conditions of change in my theory of change,” although she had been making change her whole life. It is important to understand that different people have different way of thinking about and doing these things.


Because modern economic systems a built on growth, there is an important difficulty. Economic actors must grow. We all know the dangers of exponential growth – that is what cancer is. When it comes to energy, fisheries, industrial agriculture – these resources cannot grow. There will be an economic cycle with oil because peak oil per capita has already happened. Every time the economy heats up there will be a “smack down” with oil prices, perhaps every 3 to 5 years. The economy must grow, and the economy cannot grow.


It does take a movement. We are not starting a New Economy movement, but we are accelerating the movement. We have to think very intentionally about movements. What are the transformative or meta-strategies for change so we can collaborate because we need many strategies and many gifts. There are many simultaneous roles that are needed.

1. Hospice the old destructive system…and thank people for their service. Many industries, like the coal industry, are winding down. We need to thank the coal miners for their service, give them a pension, and not replace those jobs.

2. Create and scale the new, living systems happening simultaneously around the world.

3. Build lifelines from the old to the new – find places for the new generation in the new systems.

4. Tell the new stories. The individual things going on 20 and 30 years ago are connected in different communities. We don’t have sustainable food projects, we have sustainable food systems. If we continue on the path we are on with solar, we can have 50% world solar energy by 2042. W have to tell these stories.

5. Nurture consciousness change and collaborative leadership.

Remember: The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

A challenge: how do we help people think about systems when we are wired to think linearly and about the presence, not the future? She shared the story of a woman who adopted a child in her 40s, and who said she understood the fierce love of a parent. She knew what she needed to do for her health, to prepare for the future, but she still was not doing it. What does that say about our ability to address climate change? If a trusted physician tells you that you have a serious disease, but you can improve your chances for quality and quantity of life, only about 12% will make the changes. There is something elemental and primal going on, and we need to figure out how to deal with this. As we are designing systems and collaborations, we need to think about these issues,

A source of hope: Systems can change very rapidly. The generation of people being born, if they can avoid eating the GMOs, HFCU, BPA, etc, may have a chance to live 150 years. There is a possibility that where we are sitting now in this time…fast change happens when there is a confluence of technology with communication (see “the 3rd Industrial Revolution”). Example of company in Oakland providing solar panels for free…


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