These questions bring up age-old debates on “reform versus revolution” as well as whether we can, or should, talk about alternatives. In this article we attempt to summarize some perspectives on these debates on the left.
A New “New Deal”?
Before we can talk about visions of an alternative, we need to mention the fundamental question of whether captalism should be, and can be, reformed. This debate is often a subtle one, because the sides don’t often directly engage with one another. Many progressives simply assume that the left should focus on building a more sustainable form of capitalism, rather than focusing on alternatives. For some, this is about creating stronger morals that guide the system and finding a way to reduce the greed. Others focus on greater regulation, returning to prior New Deal models, or establishing new regulations better suited to the global economy. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich typifies this perspective in a recent column he wrote, stating: “It’s time once again to save capitalism from its own excesses and to base a new era of reform on public morality and common sense.” Economist Paul Krugman, celebrated by some as a key left voice, offers a similar view. He argues that it was John Maynard Keynes, not Karl Marx, who truly understood the economy. Krugman discounts Marx’s view that we should abolish capitalism, and writes:
“it was Keynes, not Marx, who cracked the code of crisis economics – who explained how recessions and depressions can happen. And as Japan and the rest of Asia have gone into an economic tailspin, it is Keynesianism, not Marxism, that offers useful guidance about how they might save themselves.”
This view is shared by a number of national political organizations, such as Demos, Rebuild the Dream, and Center for American Progress, which focus on returning to a former model of regulated capitalism that created a large “middle class.” Demos, for example, supports the RESTORE the American Dream for the 99% Act put forth by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Demos states that the bill “is a comprehensive plan to put America back to work by reversing the failed policies of the past, which the “Super Committee” could not achieve.” Of course, there may be people at Demos who believe we eventually need an alternative to capitalism, but for now, the organization argues that it is possible to return to former days that benefitted the working class.
But others argue that capitalism is problematic at its core, and that restoring a former model of capitalism will do nothing to address exploitation and alienation. Furthermore, they state that capitalism is fundamentally undemocratic, as it is based on a class system where a minority of people (those with capital) have greater voice and power relative to the working class. This perspective, promoted by a long line of thinkers and activists, from Karl Marx to Marta Harnecker, has even praised particular aspects of capitalism, but calls for it to be ultimately succeeded by another system of political economy. But even if you agree that capitalism must eventually go, you may not agree that now is the time to focus on what some might call “blueprints” or “utopian visions.”
Building for an Alternative?
We asked a few activists and writers their perspectives on this question of vision, and building alternatives to capitalism.
Maria Poblet of Justa Causa in the Bay Area, California, says that the left should focus on vision, in part because the 1 percent does:
You don’t need a vision to do good, to make things better in your community, to fight for reforms that are important and improve people’s lives. But if you want to get to the root causes of the problems in our society, if you want to change the world, a vision is one of your most important tools.
The 1% sits in rooms scheming and visioning how to exploit people more and more. Once upon a time in some plush conference room they had a vision of neo-liberalism that eventually turned the whole world into their factory.
If the 99% don’t have an equally bold and comprehensive vision of transforming the economy that shapes our lives, we’ll be doomed to constantly be responding to what the capitalists come up with, and we’ll just be saying “no! no! no!” until we lose our voices. A vision is a huge “yes!,” a guide along the journey of social change.
Yet Amy Hanauer, from the Cleveland-based Policy Matters Ohio, thinks that the left should do more to push what is possible within capitalism before talking about alternatives. She states:
I wouldn’t say what anyone else should be doing, because I don’t advocate that we have only one approach. I think we need a lot of different strategies to make our economy work better for everyone. But for me, I’ve always felt that there is a lot of room within capitalism to have a society that works a lot better than what we have. With the right limits and laws, capitalism should be able to be compatible with a safety net, decent wages, and smart environmental policy.
Just for example, if we provided universal high-quality early education and we retrofitted every public building to the highest level of energy efficiency – if we did those two things alone, we could make a serious dent in unemployment, improve outcomes for kids, and reduce our energy use and carbon emissions dramatically. I’d love to just start with those two things, which are completely compatible with reasonable capitalism, and see how far it got us toward poverty reduction and lower unemployment. Once we did that, we could talk about additional steps. But at this point there is a lot that we haven’t even tried yet.
I also can’t easily see how a different approach would actually work. Occupy was exciting, and fun, and had a positive impact, but I am not convinced that it demonstrates a widespread embrace of an alternative to capitalism.
I’m always inspired by people who are willing to give huge amounts of energy to social movements. But in the end I just think many people want a decent job and the ability to raise their kids, and I’m not sure they’re willing to do the work that would be needed to fundamentally transform our economic system. So that makes me want to start with a stronger safety net, better environmental regulation, smarter policies on corporate behavior – and see how much we could improve people’s lives with those initial steps.
Vijay Prashad, author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and many other books and articles, says that we are not close to building alternatives due to the deep impact of neoliberalism on our lives and organizations:
My general sense is that neoliberalism has failed utterly, but capitalism will morph into a different phase before it gives itself up to the Ghost of History. The problem is that neoliberalism (with its entire raft of policies that emphasize cannibalization of the social good) has torn up considerable swathes of social life. At the same time, the normal tendency of capitalist accumulation which tries to substitute machines for people has displaced large numbers of people from its workplaces. This means that we already have a situation where social life is under assault from the policies of the powerful, and where large numbers of people are either unemployed or alternatively employed. Because human begins are social animals, and because we have to struggle to survive, people are already developing survival strategies around capitalism — through the return of various kinds of barter economies and back to the land movements. These are largely defensive, and are not yet alternatives.
This suggests that reality requires more struggles to defend what we have and simply rebuild the semblance of stability and organization, before we can even begin to talk about real alternatives to capitalism. We must first break free of the chains of neoliberalism so that we have the space to imagine something different. Vijay says that Occupy began to do this: “It has broken the chain of despondency and allowed us to imagine new communities.”
Other activists we spoke with said that their views have changed somewhat in the past few years, given the global economic crisis and the failure of movements to make gains. Stephen Lerner, a longtime union organizer referred to as the architect of Justice for Janitors, says:
For most of my life as a union organizer, I have focused on a strategy that called for organizing and uniting workers around fighting for specific winnable demands. I believed this was an essential step in building powerful sustainable organizations. And that over time they would grow strong enough to win real changes in the economic and political system.
Despite many small victories, the labor movement continues to decline. At the same time, the ongoing global economic crisis has resulted in a redistribution of wealth and power to an increasingly concentrated economic and political elite. These two interrelated events demonstrate that such a strategy is insufficient to address how capitalism is reorganizing. Nor, can such a strategy inspire workers to organize on a scale needed to challenge the power of multinational corporations and the super rich.
Times of crisis, create movement building moments that make it possible and necessitate raising bigger questions about how capitalism operates and what are alternatives that offer the hope of a better and more just world. We are in such a moment now. We need to figure out where the vision, passion, and fearless energy of horizontalism, intersects with the resources, capacity, and membership base of more vertical organizations like unions and community groups. It is at this intersection where ideas, vision and action meet that we may find the combustion that births a movement capable of winning transformational change while winning tangible victories along way.
Catherine Sameh, a member of the Iranian feminist collective Raha, has another perspective. She believes that the process of discussing vision is itself a way to build and strengthen movements:
Visions of life beyond that structured by capitalism are important not only for sustaining hope, a critical element of struggle, but also for guiding us towards a more democratic present. Some on the left are skeptical of visions, arguing that they are impractical and abstract, or more cynically, that they are vulnerable to authoritarian, even violent modes of implementation. But real changes in peoples’ lives over the last several decades have come from the interplay between vision and practice. For instance, as feminists and queers developed important critiques of the heteronormative nuclear family, they also created alternative kinship structures, thereby modeling or prefiguring a more collective and egalitarian approach to intimate life. Visions can bridge imagination, desire and practice, enabling us to be critics as well as creators of the world.
For Sameh, the process of building alternatives is not just a luxury or something on the side: it is fundamental to challenging the status quo and enabling activists to build more effective and powerful movements.
Perhaps due to the boldness of the Arab Spring, Wisconsin and Occupy, or due to the lingering economic crisis, questions around vision and alternatives may be becoming more immediate for various sectors, including amongst some organizers and activists who would have previously downplayed that importance. This is perhaps a development still in motion, as the global economy continues to falter for so many while rewarding so few. We think this suggests the urgency for launching this channel of Organizing Upgrade. Whether we are ready for alternatives is one thing, but if we don’t start a broader conversation about where we want to end up, we will never get there.
(movement poem) by Maria Poblet, San Francisco, California
Maria Poblet wrote (movement poem), inspired by the need to dream big and create vision. You can listen to an audio recording here.
give me a movement that moves
when the wounded stop weeping
and strike back
the woman on capp and 16th no longer dances
to the thump of cocaine in her veins
instead learns the rhythm of marching
and the once dealers of her chemical amnesia
distribute protest flyers
convincing the crowd at the bus stop to stop waiting and start moving
a movement that moves
where barbed wire unravels
cops run stumbling from fifteen year old boys
mothers force the mayor to resign
grandmothers hail the jesus of sandino
naming wicked those who make poverty
and blessed the poor
a movement that moves
where we all cut up our drivers licenses
burn our birth certificates
in solidarity with undocumented immigrants and transexuals
a movement that moves
where we stage an occupation of both sides of the border
that no landlord can buy or bully us out of
a movement that moves
where mops and bricks lay idle on the floor
while workers flood the street with songs and stomping
and demands too big for any CEO to meet
give me a movement
where the wounded stop weeping
and strike back
a movement that
 Robert Reich. 2012. “We have to save Capitalism from its own excesses.” The Kansas City Star. March 20.
 Paul Krugman. “Why Aren’t We All Keynesians Yet?” Fortune Magazine. August 17, 1998.
 Vijay Prashad. “Occupying the Imagination, Cultivating a New Politics.” Left Turn. November 23, 2011.