Gar Alperovitz believes that there’s a crisis in America, but it’s not a political crisis — it’s a crisis with the economic system itself.

Alperovitz is the co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, a research institute that aims to develop a more democratized economy. He was a professor at the University of Maryland and has served as a fellow at the University of Cambridge, Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and the Institute for Policy Studies. He was also a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. On Wednesday Alperovitz gave a lecture about capitalism in the United States and potential efforts to change it.

The current system, Alperovitz explained, is a corporate one that has concentrated the country’s wealth in an elite minority. For instance, the 400 wealthiest people have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the country combined, which is over 194 million people. 

“It’s a medieval concentration of income,” Alperovitz said.

He explained that this system, despite the wealth, has placed the United States at or near the bottom of the OECD Better Life Index in categories like infant mortality, mental health, and obesity.

Alperovitz said that these trends are indicative of a systemic crisis with roots from the 1930s through the 1970s. Though the wealth was held by corporations, he said, a “politics” was created to “countervail” against the corporation’s power with the rise of labor unions.

In the 1950s, members of labor unions made up roughly 34 percent of the labor force. Today, they only comprise 11 percent, he said.

The institution of labor unions no longer exists, Alperovitz explained, adding that within the next few years, there won’t be labor unions of any significance anymore.

Alperovitz said that the same goes for small businesses and small farms, although ownership and property had often been cited as a means for liberty of expression.

“[Now] the only people who have freedom to say what they want are people with tenure,” Alperovitz said. “A secure job or a small farm to stand on is a requirement for liberty.”

In the design of a new system that uses a more democratic ownership of wealth, Alperovitz urged the audience to think about the role that liberty will play. Similarly, he asked the audience not to be afraid of attempting to design a new system, no matter how daunting the task might sound.

He said his personal heroes were the civil rights workers in Mississippi in the 1930s, whose efforts to change the system often resulted in torture and hanging. These people, Alperovitz explained, had set the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“It’s easy to join a movement when a movement’s moving,” Alperovitz said. “The really interesting time is in advance when you begin to say, ‘What can be done?’”

To move beyond traditional state capitalism, Alperovitz said we would need more democratic ownership of wealth. He listed two current projects that are currently making efforts to change the traditional, capitalistic system: the New Economy Movement and the Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives.

The New Economy Movement aims to use worker cooperatives as a basis of the political-economic next system where companies are owned by the workers. The Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives is similar with its use of worker cooperatives. The CEC are a connected group of several smaller worker-owned cooperatives in low-wealth neighborhoods in Cleveland, Ohio.

Alperovitz also mentioned land trusts  — where nonprofit organizations own the land for the benefit of the neighborhood in an effort to resist gentrification — as an alternative.

He noted that all of these projects are just experiments to test out different alternatives, but they are united by the same ideas.

“What’s driving the whole thing is pain, a growing social and economic pain that is producing very great difficulties and a sense that there is no obvious alternative out there to the old tradition,” Alperovitz said.

To move these projects and a new democratic system forward, Alperovitz said that a new institutional basis in politics must be created by electing candidates who can overcome opposition to these alternatives.

Alperovitz encouraged the audience to play a part in this change and start by performing a simple task.

“When you get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, ‘Who? Me?’ Who else is going to do this but us?” Alperovitz said.

The lecture was organized by Princeton Social Sustainability and was sponsored by the Program in American Studies. It was held in Guyot Hall at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

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