What Then Must We Do (hereafter WTMWD) suggests that two important trends are emerging in the United States; and that it is important not to confuse them:
The first is a trend of decay, pain, and growing inequality: Thus, the top 1% has increased its share of income from roughly 10% to roughly 20% over thirty years; CO2 emissions have gone up 30% since 1970; poverty has increased, not decreased; in many cities Mayors have privatized (as David Dayen points on); etc., etc. etc.
WTMWD holds that the trend of decay reflects a systemic crisis in the nature of our corporate capitalist system, not simply a political crisis. The problem is institutional not political in the narrow sense:
Quite apart from globalization, race and many other factors numerous studies have shown that labor union strength has been necessary to keep corporate power in check worldwide—and it is the decline of union membership over the last several decades from 34.5% of the labor force to the 11% range (6.6% in the private sector) that is one of the most important sources of the decaying trends. Labor no longer has the political power to “counter” corporate political power.
The (currently dominant) trend of pain is well known; the fact that it derives from deeper institutional and systemic sources is less often stressed.
WTMD points out, however, that in significant part precisely because of the pain arising from this situation something else has quietly begun to develop throughout the United States—and it is also a trend involving institutional change. The press has done little to cover this trend; not surprisingly the public and many writers know little about it. Reporting on the new developments is one of the main things WTMD does. This quiet, slower moving trend involves the democratization of ownership at many different levels. Thus there are 10,000 employee owned companies; 130 million co-op members; 5000 neighborhood corporations; thousands of “social enterprises, etc. (Little of this is covered by a beleaguered press with little capacity to report on local realities.)
Though many cities (trend #1) have privatized services; hundreds of others (trend #2) have created public internet companies; 750 are now making money through companies set up to turn methane from garbage into electricity; still others are setting up publicly owned utilities; public land ownership (land trusts and real estate development around mass transit exits) is becoming another way for cities to develop ownership, etc. etc. etc. In some cities (most dramatically Cleveland) sophisticated and large scale worker co-ops are being bolstered by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, etc.
Still other “blockages” and “reversals” have occurred: Precisely because of the difficulties Chicago has had with privatization, New York scrapped plans to privatize parking meters earlier this year. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey stopped attempts to privatize major public toll road operations; an effort in Pittsburgh to go forward with a proposed privatization of its parking system was blocked. A few months ago in Cincinnati a private concession plan was abandoned in the face of opposition, etc. By establishing direct public ownership of areas surrounding transit station exits, public agencies in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and other cities earn millions capturing the increased land values their transit investments create.
There are also profound problems building up in connection with health care and banking, problems which WTMD suggests are beginning to point towards long term, slow moving new possibilities: Vermont is likely to be the first state to create a single payer health system; California passed it twice (vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger); etc. Numerous states have seen legislation introduced to create state banks like that of North Dakota; etc.
The core argument of WTMD is that the first trend of pain and decay flowing from the collapse of labor is not likely to be reversed by traditional politics: it reflects underlying institutional power shifts.
The new argument of the book is that the slow build-up of many forms of democratized ownership offers longer term hope of a counter-trend that also involves institutions, but institutions different in nature from unions—and that such institutional shifts begin to suggest a new basis for progressive political power.
The book clearly states that we do not know how far the new trend can be pushed, but that in addition to traditional political activism, it is important to self-consciously develop the new trend so as to bolster progressive politics wherever possible, since the old institutional basis of progressive politics—labor unions—is now in decay.
It also points out that more and more Americans—particularly younger people—are actively exploring various ways to develop what is increasingly termed the “new economy.” And it suggests that growing social and economic pain is building up in ways that appear increasingly to force this choice: either build in a new direction, or the pain will continue.