Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana and Presidential candidate, said to NBC’s Chuck Todd, “of course I’m a capitalist and America is a capitalist society, but it’s got to be democratic capitalism,” per the NYTimes’ Michael Tomasky.
But that hasn’t always been the case in America. Today we are approaching a very undemocratic form of capitalism—oligarchism, where a small percentage of Americans control most of the wealth and benefit from its laws—particularly since the end of the Great Recession.
Corporations and their stockholders have garnered 96 percent of the wealth generated since it ended in June 2009. Why? Because the busted housing bubble caused many in the middle class to either lose the equity in their homes, or their homes outright. The damage was so great that median household wealth has declined 30 percent since 2017, according to the Federal Reserve.
And taxes have been drastically cut that would fund public spending to restore some of that lost wealth—on badly deteriorated infrastructure, higher educational standards (US student test scores are now below that of other developed countries), research in new technologies, healthcare, and the environment.
These programs would help to restore some of the record income and wealth inequality that has resulted, and made America a world power in decline. A super majority of economists say public spending programs boost economic growth for the simple reason that it redistributes tax revenues where they will do the most good—to the 99 percent that have lost the most from the Great Recession.
Buttigieg has made some vague proposals to right the inequality that, after all, was the major cause of both the Great Depression and Great Recession. So why wouldn’t we want to bring back a democratic capitalism that works for all Americans?
But there is an even more important ingredient that nurtures democratic capitalism, besides public investments. It is healthy local community involvement in civic activities. Ball State, Indiana economist Michael J Hicks reports in an assessment of Mayor Pete’s accomplishments, a major component of his South Bend’s success has been local civic involvement in community organizations, such as their very active Rotary Club. “It was more like an interdisciplinary research colloquium, combined with an interfaith conference and millennial business forum,” said Hicks.
There are many studies that show positive results of what is a little known field of study—community development, also known as community organizing—that was first put into practice in the US by unions in the 1930s with New Deal legislation as a way to counteract effects of the Great Depression by boosting the formation of labor unions.
The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) provided for collective bargaining. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) required businesses to bargain in good faith with any union supported by a majority of its employees.
The United Nations defines community development broadly as “a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems.”
One of its best-known practitioners was Saul Alinsky, based in Chicago, who is credited with originating the term community organizer during this time period. Alinsky wrote Reveille for Radicals, published in 1946, and Rules for Radicals, published in 1971. With these books, Alinsky was the first person in America to codify key strategies and aims of community organizing.
Wikipedia cites the International Association for Community Development (www.iacdglobal.org), the global network of community development practitioners and scholars, as “a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes participative democracy, sustainable development, rights, economic opportunity, equality and social justice, through the organisation, education and empowerment of people within their communities, whether these be of locality, identity or interest, in urban and rural settings”.
Community development has today taken on a new popularity, as communities torn apart by globalization and loss of manufacturing jobs, particularly in the rust belt, seek to rebuild themselves.
Sociologists like Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, the Collapse and Revival of American Community, have been vocal in calling for a revival of local civic participation in the rebuilding of American communities.
He says in Bowling Alone, “Financial capital – the wherewithal for mass marketing – has steadily replaced social capital – that is, grassroots citizen networks – as the coin of the realm.”
Then the problem becomes how to restore the social capital of civic engagement into its rightful place in the community? It has to begin with putting public capital back into the public sector as was done with the New Deal, in order to restore democratic capitalism, a capitalism that can work for all Americans.
Harlan Green © 2019
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