Cultures of Peace and Economic Justice
Keynote Remarks, Friday, March 5, 1999
by Gar Alperovitz
I'd like to offer you what used to be known as a "hard rap." Some of you as old as I am will know what that means; some of you will perhaps get a sense of it after I'm done talking. I think there are some difficult things that need to be discussed. They're not the kind of things that can be easily addressed by just "listening" to a speaker. My invitation to you is not just to listen to this as a talk, but to see whether or not you can hold it — just look at if for a while — as if it were a brick hanging there in mid-air. The question is whether you can consider shifting something in such way that you might actually do something.
First, as an historian — and thinking about people who want to do things in difficult times — I'd like to put this little seedling in the air; we'll come back to it: I want you to recall what it was like in 1920, 1930, 1940, and even 1950 in Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia. The idea that you could change anything was not an easy idea to accept. Those of you who are involved in the women's movement, I ask you to consider the period between 1918 and 1962. There were things happening, but you would have had to look hard and far and deep to find them. You might even have had to look in rooms like this one where people were struggling with the question: how in the world do you deal with difficult times?
Second, by way of suggesting some people who have thought hard about difficult subjects and spoken out about them, I'm going to give you a little bit of surprise. Some of you may know I have written a good deal about the decision to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I'm an historian of that period as well as a political-economist. In working on that decision and what it meant, I came to be puzzled by two conservative American military leaders. What was interesting to me was that they broke ranks. Here is one of them; I want to give you a sense of how he broke ranks: This is a man who was the Supreme Commander in Europe during World War II. He was President of the United States at the height of the Cold War, and he said publicly while the Cold War was still raging that when he was told in 1945 by the Secretary of War that the atomic bomb would be used:
On another occasion he was blunt: "It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a general of the army and a President of the United States during the Cold War — saying publicly, this shouldn't have been done. Think about it. That's not an easy thing to do. I suggest that doing hard things is part of what needs to be done, and sometimes even generals can inspire peace people.
Another person I found particularly interesting was the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. He was the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chair of the combined U.S. and British Chiefs of Staff, a conservative five-star admiral, and a friend of Harry Truman's. His name was Admiral William D. Leahy. He said publicly — now think about this, who he is and what he's saying — that:
I agree with these two — this general and this admiral. But I want you to think with me about whether you can rise to the level of challenging your culture in the way appropriate to your life and to the current situation as these conservatives did in connection with their culture about that historic decision.
Specifically, there are two hard things I would like to think about with you: The first, whether or not we are at the end of a systemic era and whether we have a systemic problem which requires a systemic solution. I have no illusions about how difficult it is to grasp or to deal with "changing a system" — in this case, the most powerful, advanced, post-industrial system in the history of the world, the United States. That, however, is the issue implicit in this question. The second question is, can you see yourself in history? I mean by that, can you see the actions you are taking now as part of what might build over time to actually address something like a systemic problem? That's what I mean by a "hard rap" — changing the system, seeing yourself in history, and speaking out like these military people.
The idea of a culture of peace used to be viewed mainly as creating more cooperative and nurturing institutions — men nurturing children as women do, and developing cooperative relationships — so that out of that experience might come a different sense of who we are that would translate into politics and build up into a transformation of society and of violence. I think that's important. But I also think it's far too simplistic.
There's been a great deal of research on the relationship between anomie, isolation, and fragmentation. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, those terms were applied to the fascist nations. Why did Hitler rise? Why was a powerful fascist structure built? One reason was because, as Hannah Arendt, Robert Nisbet, Karl Polanyi and others suggested, people had been isolated and fragmented and — in the formulation recently made popular by Robert Putnam — civil society had broken down. The fragmentation of a society invites the question of whether or not the isolation of individuals allows for and produces the kinds of insecurities upon which unscrupulous leaders who want to divert attention can build.
So a deeper question may very well be whether or not the culture of the economy has so fragmented us that we not only have to consider the possibility of constructing a cooperative attitude that might lead to conciliation, peace, diplomacy, and cooperative conflict resolution (the key elements of a culture of peace) — but also delve deeper into the sources of very repressive, aggressive institutions that are able to manipulate people. I want to push you to that level in this discussion.
There are people in this room who, for instance, know a great deal about cooperative economic development efforts integrated with civil society reconstruction — which is an important piece of the puzzle. It's not the only piece, however, and it needs to be looked at in a different, larger framework. The truly difficult question — if the problem is confronted in its most fundamental aspects — is: what would it take to literally reconstruct the basis of the political-economy over time through history — starting now?
I think that the instability of the global economy, the growing inequality, the racial divisions, the erosion of the labor movement, the instability of the U.S.'s highly credit-inflated economy could easily lead to major recessions, to serious urban violence, to terrorism, to repression, and to diversions into violent, aggressive activities over the coming decade. Bruce Russett, a professor at Yale University, has begun to explore some aspects of this idea, not only in the advanced industrial societies in general but in the United States specifically. He shows correlations between economic difficulties and the tendency for leaders to become involved in aggressive external activities as a means of easing the political stresses that result from economic problems. In societies where there is isolation, anomie, and fragmentation, it's an awfully easy thing to do. We all know this, but we don't usually think about it in our own society.
Charles Derber has written a marvelous book on what he calls the "wilding phenomena." It speaks to a second aspect of the violence that this kind of society breeds — and to the acceptance of such violence. This, too, returns us to the concept of rebuilding more cooperative relationships in civil society and rebuilding the economy as one element of a response. Can this be done and how can it be done from a systemic and historical perspective? I want to emphasize again the need for a reconstruction of economic and civil society institutions that can build a sense of cooperation rather than a sense of isolation — but, again, only as a small step on a very long road.
A further related area I want to talk with you about is the growing trend of inequality in the United States. You probably don't realize that we economists tend to lie to you when we talk about this inequality: Economists will speak often of the "relative distribution of income," which has worsened in recent years (give or take a point from time-to-time). For much of the first decades of the postwar era, most economists would say there was not much change. The top 20 percent of the population (when you include all forms of income) had about 50 percent of the income, and the same number of human beings at the bottom had about 4-5 percent. If this formula is stable through time, economists will tell you that the distribution of income hasn't changed, that there has been no increase in inequality. Most people will have to agree.
Here, however, is the lie: If I have a $1,000 this year and you've got $50,000, and next year I've got $2,000 and you've got a $100,000, the relative distribution of income is exactly the same, fifty to one. The only problem is that the absolute gap between us has doubled, from $49,000 to $98,000. This, in fact, is exactly what is happening all the time. The gap between one person and another is growing steadily, even when the "relative" distribution of income is stable — which means you're always falling farther behind if you're at the bottom. And you can never climb the ladder because the ladder keeps growing. There are very high levels of frustration built into this powerful envy machine. Indeed, the latest studies of crime and violence indicate not only that poverty and deprivation but inequality itself is associated with violence and murder. Poverty and inequality, particularly inequality, incidentally, have less often been associated with burglary, that is, with getting material gains, than with violent activity.
How do we deal with that kind of inequality? Instability and anomie, inequality producing extreme difficulties and status problems, all of these open the door to greater violence. I worked at one point doing legislative development in the U.S. Congress. I directed Senate and House staffs. The typical thing we would do to address inequality was to try to pass legislation to alter the distribution of income. We wanted to tax the rich and spend money for the poor. You all probably do, too. The problem is — that it doesn't seem to be possible beyond very modest measures. I mean that in a structural sense: In the U.S. system, and to a substantial degree in European systems, the economic system distributes resources in a hierarchical fashion. The hierarchical distribution of resources then turns into a power relationship: the rich have more power, and they have enough power to block the policies that would significantly redistribute income.
If what I just said is true, we're now talking about a systemic problem. The design of the system is to produce higher degrees of inequality, which in turn produce power relationships which prevent us from altering the inequality. It used to be thought that liberals could mobilize resources, primarily — in all of the advanced industrial countries — around the labor movement, as the core of the power base to alter this cycle. It was called social democracy or the welfare state. The problem is that the trends in inequality did not change much in a positive direction, except in times of war or war-related boom, in the United States. The only time we have gotten significant positive improvement in the relative distribution of income has been during wars — like World War I and II — or after-war conditions, like the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars. After a while, however, we mainly returned to the long trend of growing inequality, relative and absolute.
Another problem is that the power base of the liberal movement, the labor movement, is slowly dissolving before our eyes in all of the advanced industrial societies. The unionized labor movement, the main basis of the politics which aimed to alter the distribution of income, was 35.5 percent of the labor force at its peak in the United States, and is now down to 14 percent and falling. Though the numbers are different, the basic trend is similar in most of the advanced industrial societies, partly as the result of the decay of manufacturing, partly as a result of globalization, and, in our own country, partly as a result of the history of race relations especially in the South. So labor is not going to fill the role liberals once hoped for — which is to rally the troops and somehow alter the distribution of income, if that's part of what it takes to produce an equitable society that might be less violent.
I told you this would not be a pleasant story.
Let me suggest a couple of possible scenarios. If, as I suggested, we have a systemic problem, exacerbated by globalization but not primarily driven by globalization, then either there is a systemic solution at some point or the problem will continue. One likely trajectory is for decay, racial divisions, probable violence, and scattered repression. I think we're beginning to see this happening in such incidents as the bombings in Oklahoma City and New York. As an historian, looking at this particular, very strange moment in the history of our country, one of the interesting parts of the reality is that the above scenario is producing — at the level of attitude — cynicism, apathy, and pessimism. But it's also producing a huge range of on-the-ground experimentation and new thinking. I see this as an historical development: When the old ideas don't work and things get worse and worse, that is when people start thinking new ideas. It doesn't mean everyone will get what they want, but there's a process underway that goes with the collapse of the old ideology. A historical "sociology of knowledge" process opens up an enormous range of new suggestions about where we could go in the new century by academics, public intellectuals, activists, and journalists.
Charles Derber has a new book, Corporation Nation, which opens the door on these ideas in a particular way. Also a young man named Thad Williamson, in a recent book titled What Comes Next? Proposals for a Different Society, has reviewed some fifty new system-related suggestions for the future. But most interesting, from the point of view of this discussion, is the process that is forcing people to think about systemic ideas. If the pain continues, I think we're likely to see this trend continue.
The other thing that's happening, which I think is equally important, is on-the-ground development and experimentation. It too is being driven by pain. It's being driven by the experience that there is no other way to go forward if you want to go forward. What you're seeing in many communities has been an evolution of different ways to organize economic activity that are neither entrepreneurial capitalism, nor corporation capitalism, nor state socialism — i.e., the grand trio: the entrepreneur, the corporation, and the state. The new ways of organizing are coming out of community action that builds economic activity in a way that somehow democratizes the ownership of resources — the means of production if you like — in such areas as land, stores, housing, factories, utilities, and, in the case of United Airlines, airplanes. These ways of organizing have different names. There are worker-owned firms. There are land trusts. There are community development corporations, neighborhood ownership, cooperatives, joint ventures, and a new kind of animal: nonprofit business activities. The latter start out with a social mission, but when they realize they haven't got enough money and the federal government won't bail them out, they start a business. In most of these examples the first guiding dimension is social.
At our Center for Economic and Security Alternatives, we've been mapping this development, and I think one can see an evolution. There are now more workers involved in some kind of worker-owned firm than there are members of unions in the private sector. Most of these are ESOPs, Employee Stock Ownership Plans, and most of them are not very interesting — yet. They're mainly retirement programs. However, many are reaching the place where they could potentially begin to have very significant control of the companies in which workers may have majority ownership. The traditional mechanisms, which do not often allow participation, are being and can be challenged. It's a very interesting time for potentially beginning to organize the next stage of the development of ESOPs — from merely retirement stock ownership plans to a system that might actually begin to gain participatory control of some firms. This represents not only a development on-the-ground that is very real — lots of people, lots of money, and big companies, too, like United Airlines — but also the development of a whole set of ideas about how and what to develop and expand — including even projecting such ideas towards what a different economy and a different economic system might entail if it built upon such practical on-the-ground experiences. What's interesting to me is that this type of development also potentially opens the door to decentralized community-building activity. And it has a trajectory. Through the politics which enacted the tax provisions to help this movement go forward, it now also has a growth path.
A similar potential exists in the emerging next stage of growth of community development corporations or neighborhood corporations. These exist in many communities; indeed, there are three or four thousand of them in the United States today. Most focus on housing development in poor communities. The original idea of the community development corporation (CDC), begun in the sixties, was that neighborhoods ought to own and control resources, develop significant profits, and be supported in these efforts so that they could advocate and develop in their own neighborhood in a manner that took on a trajectory of growth. Unfortunately, in the early 1970s the Nixon Administration (with indirect help at the time from the Ford Foundation) cut that broader idea to ribbons so that many of the CDCs became simply housing developers. Some of them also "incubated" entrepreneurs.
A new stage, however, can now be seen in such efforts as, for instance, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston, a community development operation similar to a CDC which has been authorized to exercise the power of eminent domain to help organize and develop the community. Eminent domain is local socialization, the power of the city to take over land — in this case for the purposes of developing a neighborhood. There are many examples of taking the old model to a different level in neighborhoods, to a cooperative ownership of economic activity — which suggest a different trend and a different possibility. What's interesting is that this model is also now taking on advocacy and community organizing, on a cultural and political basis, rather than simply a strictly economic or technical basis. (By the way, in a number of areas the Ford Foundation is now helping the new trend go forward.)
A similar trend can be seen in connection with land trusts and cooperatives. One of the things happening in America today is a great deal of experimentation — developing alternative models. Many are in fact developing experiments which have an ideological trajectory. They are helping us ask "preliminary" questions about which pieces you might need one day to build towards a system-wide reorganization of the economy over the very long haul.
If a culture of peace is doable, certainly it requires something like these kinds of experiments. It has to have a quality of cooperation in it. Ultimately, this is one of the preconditions of getting out of the polarized oligarchic forms of conflict that we see in Washington today and in violent global systems generally. However, the central question is whether we can lay the basis in the new era for something that transcends experiments or transcends even "large trends." Note carefully: Even large trends will not do it. What we are talking about is what can only be called a systemic shift. It's not enough to play the game of having a little cooperation and some nice cultural change.
Your might also note that if that is true — if you want to make systemic change, what you throw on the table is one, two, three, or four decades of your life. You play in history. You don't change systems otherwise.
If the problem is really systemic, if there might be a way out of our problems, and if you want to play, are you prepared to throw a decade or two of your life on the table? That's what it takes. And you might not win; you might lose. As I said: It's a "hard rap." I'll only add that a lot of folks have been there before.
Some people have taken further steps and begun to explore further what might happen if we move in this direction over time. Ultimately, a critical question is how to deal with the large corporation. In the new century, does it get phased out or is it something that gets controlled by stakeholders? Many books are appearing now which address this question. (Some of them are reviewed in Thad Williamson's compilation.) There are also many interesting experiments--such as the Alaska Permanent Fund in which ownership of stock benefits the entire community and individuals in the state (to the tune of about a $1,000 for each man, woman and child at the moment). There are also efforts at municipal ownership just beneath the normal horizon of media attention. And many activists, public intellectuals and scholars have begun to explore the trajectory of thought which might lead us beyond such ideas as well. Involved in all this is a slowly evolving discussion of different ways the larger parts of the economy might ultimately be put together. Viewing all this, I see considerable renewal at the level of intellectual activity. It reminds me of something like the intellectual discourse which preceded and developed during the Progressive Era. It might be called the pre-history of a history which one day might occur.
I said at the outset that, to me, the interesting people who make social movements are the people in Mississippi in 1930 and 1940, and the women's movement in 1940 and 1950 — not 1962 when it was already easier. The hardest place is when the problem looks darkest and you have to experiment and struggle to build the next stage and confront the question: How in the world do we get out of this mess? That pre-history is where the action is, where my heroes are. That's the place where something might possibly happen.
Do you know what I'm talking about? Or do you want only to join a social movement when it's already happening? That's easy.
I'm not an historical determinist. I think this society, like Rome, could decay. And it could decay with nuclear weapons. To many social activists, today does look like Mississippi must have in 1920 and 1930 in many respects. It may offer no possibility of achieving a serious positive result. On the other hand, systemic change is as common as grass in world history. I'm an historian. Societies come and go in history all the time — from Egypt to ancient China to Persia, to the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, the South African liberation movement, and the colonial revolutions in general. None of the large order changes that took place as a result of these revolutions seemed possible looking at the world during the dark, "pre-history" years from within the belly of the system. All happened, however, as a matter of fact.
The stakes are very high. It's one of the things that keeps me going and excited about the prospect of change. We are talking about nuclear weapons and the ease with which they may or may not be used due to miscalculations or calculations. We're talking about very dangerous systems. We're talking about politicians who are much more interested in their political security than in your national security. They will play violent if that's what it takes to stay in office. When I worked in the State Department — this was at the height of the Vietnam War — I learned what the U.N.'s function was from the point of view of the U.S. State Department: The U.N. was the billboard on which you bounced American policy at the American public to look like you wanted to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. We used the U.N. as a billboard, to manipulate not so much world opinion but American opinion, as a way to support U.S. policies at that time. I have no illusions about what it takes to change the culture which drives the politics which produces that result.
I want to give you a small ray of hope. (I don't usually like to give people "hope." I like them to confront the existential problem with me. Hope's too easy. Rallying the troops is too easy. We have a much harder but much more interesting existential problem.) Here, however, is a bit of "hope": a number of things are happening that really open up the new century in a different way:
First, the levels of affluence that will potentially be available are unheard of, if the trends of the past century are carried forward. The current level of the economy produces about $130,000 for every four people. If you divided it up equally, every family of four would have $130,000 right now. This amount will double, and could end up in the range of $400,000-500,000, if the twentieth century's trends repeat — even if the ups and downs and stagnation of the past century also are repeated in the future. If the figures came to half that, we've still got big numbers. If you shifted the figures and were interested in an ecological solution rather than just more material wealth — if you took the number $400,000-500,000 and broke it down to $100,000-200,000 — then the work week would drop dramatically to 15-20 hours, potentially, with these levels of income. That solution is interesting not only from an ecological point of view, but it might make more time available. And time is the essence of democracy. If you don't have time, you can't have a voice. If you're working two jobs just to feed the kids, you can't participate. So, as we go forward technology might permit us more space — if we can get a handle around organizing the political-economy — to allocate resources so as to permit a new distribution of time.
The second thing that's interesting to me is that manufacturing is slowly declining. By conservative projections, the manufacturing part of the labor force will be at 12 percent by the year 2006. The German Metal Workers Union predicts that only a few percent of German labor will be in manufacturing by mid-century. This trend in turn opens the possibility for more things to be done locally in a decentralized way that might be more amenable to community reorganization, might allow rebuilding from the bottom up — if there were a will and a vision to take it forward through time. (It also means that to the extent trade in manufacturing goods is of declining importance to the U.S. economy, some parts of the globalization phenomena are going to relax in this political-economic system over time.)
The third interesting phenomenon is that new technologies also permit ever-greater decentralization--and, too, the democratization of information. That's a new phenomenon. Within the context of the affluence potential, the time potential, the technology potential, and the localization which might be permitted by a less manufacturing oriented system, there may be a degree of freedom possible that no system has ever confronted before. And that at least could be hopeful.
So now let me tell you some things I haven't talked about. I haven't talked about the role of male-female relationships and nurturing societies and cultures. My suspicion is that cooperative, local reintegration of economies might permit men and women different ways of relating to the community, to child-rearing, and to production (although I haven't seen a lot of it yet).
I haven't talked about the peace movement getting involved in any of this because I don't see a lot of that either: I think people interested in peace don't want to do systemic change work. They don't like it; it's too hard. (I want to suggest to you that you think about whether you want to do the necessary work.)
I've only touched upon larger issues of system-wide political-economic coordination. (First things first today: What people like those assembled in this room can do as a first step is to act at the local level. There is much more to study and think about beyond that for another day.)
I also haven't talked at all about development problems in the third world. I believe many third world countries require a similar paradigm shift. Whether or not this shift is doable in many parts of the world, I don't know. I don't know if anything is doable in roughly a third of the world the way that the global political economy is now organized. The world market is very destructive in many third world countries. They have limited options. But, again, there's a lot of hopeful experimentation. . . (You've got a resource in the people at this conference who know much more about this. Take advantage of them.)
I've suggested to you that if you were in 1930 and 1940, in Mississippi or in the women's movement at that time, you might have seen the world as impossible to change. You might have seen all the negative trends. You might have been struggling because you wanted to "witness" or "hope" or just "try." But if you looked at it historically, from a different perspective, you might also have seen that difficult situations were also fostering lots of folks who wanted to do things that you couldn't see. The pain itself was generating its own ideologies and reactions. That's a regular process in history. Some people can build with it, and sometimes a society can transform with it. Sometimes — not always, sometimes — this pain is the stimulator of ideas that can be transformative.
The hard part--and now I take you back to General Eisenhower and Admiral Leahy — is to say: I'm going to stand out against my culture, not with it. Let me emphasize that. Cultural change is sometimes about standing out against one's culture rather than with it — including the habitual we and our friends like to do and say as Eisenhower and Leahy did among their friends. It's not just about cooperation, it's about standing up "against." If it is possible that we have a systemic problem rather than merely a political or cultural problem alone, and if the only way out of a systemic problem is to rebuild the system, then the only way to get out of the violence — and you, too, are part of the problem if you sidestep all this — is to say we've got a systemic problem, let's change the system, let's rebuild it from the bottom up.
I'm a reconstructionist, not a revolutionary. Do you know the difference between reform, revolution, and reconstruction? Reform is when you accept the system as it is and you try to paste up around the edges, like passing a welfare program but not touching the corporations. Revolution is when you throw the system over to change its organization. Reconstruction is changing the institutions to change the system in an evolutionary reconstructive way, not just pasting up around the edges. The name of the game is systemic change and the specific things that you do in history tomorrow, yesterday, aim over time to build stepping stones — like some of the little schools that were started in 1930 in the South, like some of the things that the YWCA did in little back rooms in Alabama in the 1940s, like some of the things the peace movement did in the 1960s before there was a peace movement. That kind of pre-history is always the spark plug for the next sort of things that need to be done.
If you take the longer view I have been urging, I think you will find that you have enormous resources at this conference. The people on your panels are very knowledgeable and very well-trained, and they know a great deal about what's going on in this country and other countries. So you have resources to begin to grapple with this level of a problem. My plea to you is to use those resources, not at the easy end of the difficulty but at the dark end — and see what might be built.
I'm delighted to be at your conference. I'm impressed with the people here. I commend the systemic question and seeing reconstruction as prehistory as some ways to begin to think through our common task of getting beyond the systems of violence we find around us as our century ends.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue