What Then Must We Do?
Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution
White River Junction:
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013
I am not a political economist. I am, however, someone who often thinks in metaphor, and was trained, and now teaches, in the liberal arts tradition and finds great satisfaction in the intersections and overlapping narratives of life. From this location I simply cannot recommend Gar Alperovitz’s new book What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution emphatically enough. Professor Alperovitz approaches the highly charged topic of how we address an increasingly unjust and failing political and economic system with honesty, approachability, expertise, and even a little hope.
His challenge to the myth of capitalism, the free market, and our culture’s oftentimes misplaced trust in the democratic process makes for a compelling argument as he begs the question, using the language of Tolstoy, “What then must we do?” His approach is one of long-term vision and commitment; he presses his reader to look beyond trying to affect change by working within the traditionally accepted systems. He names the new normal of “corporations are people too” and boldly lays out a roadmap to think far beyond the narrow parameters in which we have imprisoned our processes and structures.
Perhaps above all else, he confirms the sneaking suspicions many of us have had for some time about what we, as the general population, might actually be in a position to do to dramatically shift the corporate takeover of the American democratic system. Yet through careful research and thoughtful examples in business and within local and state jurisdictions, Professor Alperovitz offers ingenious models and jumping off points as we commit ourselves to revolution in radical and creative ways.
As a clergy person in a Protestant mainline denomination I could not help but read with church eyes. While I appreciate his desire to challenge a system of government that continues to benefit, at unprecedented rates, the wealthiest individuals and corporations, I find myself wanting to place his approach and model over our increasingly unjust and failing church processes and structures, as well. And I find myself wondering the time has not only come for the next American Revolution, but also perhaps the next Reformation.
Professor Alperovitz places in stark historical context the realities of the New Deal Era, post-World War II Boom, and Civil Rights Movement and makes it quite clear that those were blips on the radar and the incredible good that came out of each of these moments in history cannot be recreated, looked to as realistic models for how we can live as a society, or assumed as an option for future strategizing. Our institutional religious memory, particularly among the mainline denominations, falls into the same trap of looking backward as we long for the prestige, influence, financial stability, and, perhaps especially, membership numbers of the post-World War II Boom. Yet, until we realistically place that 1950s context within the wider social, political, and economic global situation and accept that we will not and cannot go back to that historical location we will continue to hold it up as the paradigm and we will continue to be discouraged.
In his recounting of the socio-political context out of which the most successful movements in the American story were born, including abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and lgbt equality, Professor Alperovitz reminds the reader these were not structural or systemic shifts in our system. Rather, they were based in the idea of inclusion. In each of these instances, in various ways, particular marginalized people sought an entry point into the establishment. Our denominations face much the same situation. In my own Presbyterian Church (USA) we too continue to celebrate movement building victories at many levels and offer what feels like creative responses to our changing church, and yet none of these movements or programs are doing anything but attempting to fit themselves into an already existing structure. In politics, in economics, and it would seem, in church we are still unwilling or unable to fundamentally change the paradigm.
Just as our churches speak longingly of a bygone era, Professor Alperovitz names the other side of the coin as well, using the language of historian Lewis Namier, who said we tend to “remember the future.” We project forward our assumptions, occasionally our hopes, and more often than not, our fears, without honoring our own inability to know what the future will bring. We “remember the future” when we buy into the annual study naming the date and time of “the death of the church”; we “remember the future” when we only cite the rapid decline of congregations with more than one full-time pastor, or with any full-time pastor; we “remember the future” when we assume faithfulness to be a zero-sum game and hunker down to hoard resources and compete for loyalties, rather than live our call.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Professor Alperovitz’s book are the multi-faceted approaches to systemic change he lays out, all of which offer practical methods for individual congregations, governing bodies, and denominations who are willing to engage in long-term strategizing over what might be next. Strategic change comes along four different lines:
- “Evolutionary Reconstruction” happens all around us in small and meaningful ways, the methodical systemic change happening in our neighborhoods, in co-ops, community gardens, resource sharing, and democratizing our systems in ways that will sustain.
- “Checkerboard Strategies” allow us to see the wider board and understand there may not be a direct route to the goal. Employing a checkerboard strategy means being willing to take on one square at a time in order to achieve the long term objective.
- “Crisis Transformations” are exactly what they sound like- a willingness to engage creative and radical solutions when no other option seems feasible.
- “Big Crisis Transformations” happen on a larger scale, for Professor Alperovitz it is the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority or the bailouts of General Motors or AIG. Big Crisis Transformation is not the strategy we hope to utilize, however when it becomes necessary we must be prepared to respond.
What Then Must We Do? is a response to a nation in crisis. Unintentionally, it is also a response to a church in crisis. Professor Alperovitz names our current context as “the prehistory of the next American revolution” and lays down a concise, accessible response. His thoughtfulness, as well as his blatant honesty about these not being short-term solutions or strategies, allows his reader to see how they might make a difference in their own communities. By liberating us from only thinking within the widely accepted norms and strategies that have existed for generations, he gives us permission to go back to what grounds us—as Americans he names the fundamental values of equality, liberty, and democracy—as the church it is our call to proclaim the Gospel. In both cases when we strip away the systems, structures, and processes and simply seek to fulfill our collective calling all things are on the table and all things are possible.
The Reverend Elizabeth Shannon is Associate Director of the Center for Spiritual Life and Associate Chaplain at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. She also serves as co-moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
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