NEN member Gar Alperovitz has just published an article, “The New Economy Movement”, in the Nation. Gar, who works with the Democracy Collaborative to support worker cooperatives and new forms of ownership, provided an over view of key players in the emerging new economy movement as well as an assessment of our strengths and weaknesses.
The New-economy movement
A growing group of activists and socially responsible companies are rethinking business as usual.
by GAR ALPEROVITZ
The idea that we need a “new economy”—that the entire economic system must be radically
restructured if critical social and environmental goals are to be met—runs directly counter to the
American creed that capitalism as we know it is the best, and only possible, option. Over the past
few decades, however, a deepening sense of the profound ecological challenges facing the planet
and growing despair at the inability of traditional politics to address economic failings have fueled an
extraordinary amount of experimentation by activists, economists and socially minded business leaders.
Most of the projects, ideas and research efforts have gained traction slowly and with little notice. But in
the wake of the financial crisis, they have proliferated and earned a surprising amount of support—and
not only among the usual suspects on the left. As the threat of a global climate crisis grows increasingly
dire and the nation sinks deeper into an economic slump for which conventional wisdom offers no
adequate remedies, more and more Americans are coming to realize that it is time to begin defining,
demanding and organizing to build a new-economy movement.
That the term “new economy” has begun to explode into public use in diverse areas may be an
indication that the movement has reached a critical new stage of development—and a sign that the
domination of traditional thinking may be starting to weaken. Although precisely what “changing the
system” means is a matter of considerable debate, certain key points are clear: the movement seeks
an economy that is increasingly green and socially responsible, and one that is based on rethinking the
nature of ownership and the growth paradigm that guides conventional policies.
This, in turn, leads to an emphasis on institutions whose priorities are broader than those that typically
flow from the corporate emphasis on the bottom line. At the cutting edge of experimentation are the
growing number of egalitarian, and often green, worker-owned cooperatives. Hundreds of “social
enterprises” that use profits for environmental, social or community-serving goals are also expanding
rapidly. In many communities urban agricultural efforts have made common cause with groups
concerned with healthy nonprocessed food. And all this is to say nothing of 1.6 million nonprofit
corporations that often cross over into economic activity.
For-profits have developed alternatives as well. There are, for example, more than 11,000 companies
owned entirely or in significant part by some 13.6 million employees. Most have adopted Employee
Stock Ownership Plans; these so-called ESOPs democratize ownership, though only some of them
involve participatory management. W.L. Gore, maker of GORE-TEX and many other products, is a
leading example: the company has approximately 9,000 employee-owners at forty-five locations
worldwide and generates annual sales of $2.5 billion. Litecontrol, which manufactures high-efficiency,
high-performance architectural lighting fixtures, operates as a less typical ESOP; the
Massachusetts-based company is both entirely owned by some 200 employees and fully unionized with
the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.