But is it Socialism?: Building the Alternative


By Eric Ebel

This article is based on a talk that Eric Ebel gave at a workshop on the Solidarity Economy at DSA’s 2013 National Convention.

The struggle to build socialism has two tracks. The first, where we in DSA have traditionally concentrated our efforts, is social-democratic political action, what we used to call “the left wing of the possible.” Our goals, set forth in documents such as the Economic Bill of Rights, have focused on single-payer health care, student-loan reform, increasing unionization, and other parts of a broad progressive project. These are necessary elements of what socialists are trying to do and deserve as many resources as we can devote to them. But socialism has a second, longer-term track: the actual transfer of control of the economy into democratic hands.

As Steve Wilson said last night at the outreach event, socialists must articulate an alternative vision for society; I say the socialist left has to go farther. My own roots, back in the 70’s, are in the cooperative movement. That movement rests on a central insight: we don’t have to wait for state power to start building the alternative; we can start right now.

And in fact there is a movement to create the alternative sorting itself out. From the U.S. Social Forum comes the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, which is part of a global effort under the French acronym RIPESS. There is also the New Economy Coalition, which derives from efforts associated with the late E.F. Schumacher. [Since the Convention, a group around Gar Alperovitz and the Democracy Collaborative is trying to set up what they call The Next System.] And there are quite a few other organizations, such as the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives out there. By historical accident — the first Social Forum was held in Atlanta, where we have a strong local — the DSA has tended to align informally with the USSEN. We should keep our options open.

Right now, one of the main efforts — the one I’ve been most involved with — is an attempt to catalogue, or “map” all the various efforts. The goal is to bring all the diverse projects — you’d be surprised how many there are — into a single place, so that people can find them and see how they potentially fit together. The simplest approach is to set up a place where people could come and list their own efforts; personally, I think such a list would not be terribly useful and too open to abuse. (Walmart, after all, would just love to tell us what a wonderful, pro-social company it is and how well it treats its “associates” and the environment.) My own preference would be for trying to merge lists from existing trade-association groups, such as the Federation of Worker Cooperatives, which may have a better handle on who really qualifies for the list. The two approaches, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

Out of the mapping projects, we’re hoping to encourage the development of an alternative sector. (We may need a better name; the word “sector” apparently has some technical meanings in Europe, which we may not fit.) When we know who is where, we’re hoping people can start assembling “supply chains,” co-ops working together to create things they could not create alone. And if people know what’s there, they may see gaps that could be filled by new enterprises. A list could also encourage the creation of infrastructure for the new sector; if there is enough alternative activity in a particular geography, it may be worth someone’s while to set up law, accounting, or financial firms — or departments in existing firms — specializing in the needs of solidarity enterprises. There are real possibilities.

Most importantly, the sector must develop the capacity to expand. Organizational forms already exist which can be utilized by those wishing to establish, or shift to, socially controlled enterprise forms. One of the more obvious is the worker co-op; sometimes these have to be set up under statutes providing for other — and perhaps not as well-fitting — forms, such as consumer co-ops, but there are specific statutes coming along. Another is the “B Corporation,” which is a private, for-profit company dedicated to broader goals than single-minded profit-maximization. And there is always the “employee stock ownership plan” or ESOP, which is a device, based in the tax code, providing for ownership of companies, in whole or in part, by their employees. ESOP’s have gotten a bad reputation for such things as undemocratic management and loss of diversification in investments, but that rep is overblown, and there are ways to set them up for more democratic results. The important thing is that these devices be available for when we need them.

Now, what is the role of the DSA in all of this? As an organization, obviously, we will not be building the alternative structures themselves. There are better organizations to be doing that, and as a political group we don’t really have the skill-set. There are, however, a number of tasks for us. First, we can do education about the alternative, both to the general public and to relevant groups among the progressive coalition. That’s been in our last couple of Organizational Priorities Resolutions, and it’s in this year’s draft. We can sponsor showings of the film Shift Change — Chicago DSA ([email protected]) has couple of copies for locals and YDS chapters to use — or read What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz’s latest, which provides a useful overview, in a study group.

Second, where we have strong locals, we can take part in local efforts to foster alternative developments. Simone talked about what was happening in Columbus. A good deal of the most exciting stuff is being pushed at the municipal level, such as in Cleveland, Jackson, MS, and even right here in Oakland. (Since the convention, an effort has opened in New York.) That should be a natural for any DSA groups in the vicinity.

Third, later on there will legislative initiatives to authorize or encourage new economic forms. Just recently, the State of Delaware passed a statute providing for B corporations; this is important because Delaware, of course, is where most of the largest corporations are chartered, and one of the hallmarks of their law is giving corporate managements maximum flexibility to set up their affairs as they see fit. Obviously, the “Fortune 500” are not about to run out and convert to social governance, but when and if any of them do, their legal authority is already in place. In 2001, there was a proposal before Congress to give federal tax benefits to companies that operated as one-person, one-vote ESOP’s, and it drew support from conservative Republicans as well as liberal Democrats. It didn’t pass at the time, and obviously it’s not possible in today’s political climate. Political climates, however, change.

Finally, especially through the YDS, we can recruit people who have or are developing the skills necessary to work directly on building the social solidarity sector. Historically, one of the main contributions of the DSA youth section has been to educate and nurture college students, who then go on into movement jobs, especially in the labor movement. We should try to do the same with people who might become leaders of the new economy. That may involve moving a bit out of our comfort zone; there aren’t a great many MBA students in the DSA. But you never know. I have a sister who decided some years ago to go back and get an MBA. She’s not one of us, but she’s a liberal Democrat, and I remember her talking about being freaked out by the capitalist crazies in her classes. I sometimes wonder how many other people like her there are out there, rejecting right-wing ideology but developing skills that the movement will need to build the alternative. We should try to find them.

In sum, a lot of things are happening beneath the notice of the political culture — including our own. We in the DSA should be keeping track of what’s up, trying to see how it all fits together, and looking for ways to make positive contributions.

This is an exciting time.

Eric Ebel is a member of Greater Detroit DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.