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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ownership Societies, Fake and Real

Via Jesse Walker at Reason Hit&Run. Gar Alperovitz mocks Bush's counterfeit version of the "ownership society"...

President George W. Bush’s "ownership society" is a seductive idea: who wouldn’t want to become the owner of their home, health care, retirement, and destiny? From the "home on the range" to the adulation heaped on high-tech entrepreneurs, the concept is rooted in the American experience. No other nation places more value on the importance of individual autonomy. Ultimately, however, Bush’s promise of an ownership society is an empty one. In exchange for ownership, we receive increased risk while the wealthy and corporate interests benefit, as in his Social Security privatization plan. In Bush’s world, everyone gets a little piece of the pie, but at the cost of giving the wealthy extremely large helpings....

...and proposes a real one.

Although the redistributive door is largely closed, the ownership door is, in fact, open. Not ownership in Bush’s skewed sense, but rather ownership in a democratic sense through the possibility of community-based investment in, and control over, wealth creation. Employees, companies, non-profits, cities, and states are using diverse and innovative strategies to create community wealth. It is wealth that improves the ability of communities and individuals to increase asset ownership, anchor jobs locally, expand the provision of public services, and ensure local economic stability, rather than just boost corporate profits and shareholder fortunes. A common thread runs through the employee-owned firms, community development corporations, and even the traditional co-ops: the idea that real wealth equality can only be built by communal involvement in the means by which that wealth is produced. Such approaches provide ownership for millions of Americans–in many cases, through a tangible asset that can appreciate and be passed on to subsequent generations. Others create community wealth by enabling businesses and jobs to stay in the United States.

But more than that, these ownership strategies give people a real stake in their community, strengthening the bonds of citizenship and the connections between people, institutions, and places. These are not incidental by-products of a progressive ownership society; they lie at its core. A country where more people have a tangible stake and believe they can create better lives for themselves and their children is a strong society–and a strong democracy. "Necessitous men are not free men," Franklin Roosevelt urged. Or as an earlier President, John Adams, reminded a young nation: "The balance of power in a society accompanies the balance of property."

I don't like, to put it mildly, Alperovitz's reliance on government as a lever for achieving his vision. But a version of economic justice that emphasizes distributive ownership of property, rather than the corporate state redistributing part of the income from concentrated wealth, is a refreshing one. It's certainly at odds with the usual approach of managerialist, big government liberalism. As Alperovitz writes,

the idea of using investment strategies to benefit non-elites has been difficult for some progressives to grasp–it sounds too much like the other side’s programs.

The guild socialist G.D.H. Cole argued, in some article or other, that the Crolyites and Fabians preferred leaving corporate industry intact, either nationalizing it or redistributing its income, rather than putting workers directly in ownership and control of production. The reason was that the latter scheme, unlike the mixed economy of nationalized industry and the welfare state, would have left precious little need for the technocratic New Class to administer it. And as the distributist Hilaire Belloc pointed out, the managerialist "socialists" were pretty flexible about giving up their egalitarianism and their paper-thin loyalty to the working class, so long as the owners of industry would maintain them in comfort. So in practice, the mixed economy wound up being a case of what Gabriel Kolko called "political capitalism": the New Class acting as hired overseers for the owning classes, rationalizing the economy through the state, and protecting corporate profits from destabilizing competition.

As for the ownership approach taken by the Bush junta and its pet neocon intellectuals, it's like the neocons' counterfeit of all the other American symbols they've appropriated: fake, fake, fake. Despite Bush's populist rhetoric about widespread ownership, and cutting taxes on "hard-working Americans," there has been a concerted effort to shift taxes off of the returns on accumulated wealth, and onto the wages of labor and on consumption by working people. At the national level that means eliminating categories of taxation that affect mainly the rich (capital gains and inheritance), while cutting income taxes "across the board" (i.e., mainly on the super-rich). Locally, it comes in the form of fake populist campaigns to abolish property taxes on large landholdings, and replace it with a sales tax on poor people's groceries.


Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

This joker is on crack if he thinks that "community development corporations" are anything but corporate welfare. Steal from the poor and middle class, purchase land, sell it for peanuts to big boxes, and forget to tax them anything like the mom-and-pop stores in town. He's a fool if he thinks he's going to run the Cockroach Caucus for populist ends.

- Josh

July 21, 2006 10:40 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

You're probably right. In Fayetteville, the "progressives" moved heaven and earth fighting the coalition of real estate developers and banks that had controlled the city for years. They replaced a city manager government with at-large directors with a mayor-council government elected by wards.

Once in power, the "progressive" politicians abandoned the old hippies and working class people who had been a big part of their base, and listened mainly to the yuppies. Rather than focusing on issues like skyrocketing housing costs and bike- and pedestrian-unfriendly urban design, they devoted most of their effort to preserving a gentrified "atmosphere" through aesthetic regulations.

To me, that's just a slightly less vulgar version of the old policy of pumping up real estate values, only with a little more emphasis on downtown business owners at the expense of the suburban developers.

If they'd been interested in helping anybody besides yuppies, they'd have done things like oppose all TIF districts, legalized mixed-use development, and shift the property tax off of buildings.

July 21, 2006 10:15 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Here in neighboring Springdale, I should add, the cockroach caucus (not being dominated by its yuppie aesthete wing) is a little more honest as well as a little more crass. They squeaked by on a public vote to raise the sales tax one cent for a baseball stadium. Every time I buy groceries, I want to spit in their fucking faces. I can't believe the public was stupid enough to vote for it. They ought to know that any time the Chamber of Commerce and City Council are lined up on the same side of a ballot issue, they're in for a royal fucking.

July 21, 2006 10:18 PM  
Blogger donald said...

do you think it's practically possible for government, let's say local government, to serve a communitarian function? i guess i ask because i live in austin, and they have some good public programs (parks and such) bound to networks of volunteer groups and nonprofits.

i sort of see this as a practical direction we can take in terms of steady deflation of the corporate-state nexus. latch on independent organizations, volunteer groups, and networks of prosumers to public institutions. since the politicians are trying to defund any seful public institution anyway it seems possible.

i guess part of me likes the vision of a project-based, democratic space for community members to come together and build something. descaling government into an amish-style barn-raising and nothing more.

July 22, 2006 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


A recent paraphrase of Proudhon I saw from Shawn Wilbur states it better than I can: some anarchists pursue a path that passes through the state, but they linger there too long at their own peril. It's conceivable to me that local government can be used as a mechanism for decentralizing things and creating some forms of social property that will survive in a post-state period. Murray Rothbard, at his more radical, speculated on state nationalization of industry as a step in worker homesteading of the state capitalist economy. But the risks involved, of creating a statist mechanism that will perpetuate it, are awfully big; I tend to shy away from them.

Now, when a service or property is already controlled by local government, devolving it to the lowest level possible and running it on a cooperative basis is definitely a step in the right direction.

--Kevin Carson

July 24, 2006 4:12 PM  

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