A collage of many hands reaching up to a textbook in the sky, in the background, there is a blazing fire.
Image credit: master1305 on adobe stock

As the economic, social, and ecological systems we live in collapse, new ones emerge. What can be done to produce ways of life we desire for ourselves, others, and future generations? How can we know what to teach and who can teach us? I believe these are answerable questions that engaged academics at universities and colleges can help grapple with to help move us beyond capitalism.

To do this, however, we require a different form of scholarship than many are used to. Instead of an ivory tower approach, it is vital to unite academic scholarship, social movement knowledge, community partnerships, and institutional action to develop systemic solutions to the central social, economic, and ecological questions of our time.

Moving Beyond Capitalism

In 2021, the Next System Studies program began at George Mason University (GMU), Virginia’s largest public university—located about 20 miles west of the nation’s capital—with an Earth Day event attended by hundreds of policymakers, community organizers, and academic scholars. My colleagues and I define the field as one that concerns the relationships between system crises, systemic movements, system design, and system change. If we live in a world on fire, we must move with urgency and efficacy; getting it right matters. Since its launch, the program has grown to include several major projects, hundreds of students, dozens of fellows, and partnerships with many organizations.

To some, GMU may seem like an odd place for such an initiative to emerge. Yes, it is the same place described in books like Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, on the influence of high-power megadonors like the Koch brothers on our political system and at universities like George Mason specifically. Yet most university students, faculty, and staff have nothing to do with the Koch brothers and no contact with the economics department and law school here.

The approach we advocate…connects classroom teaching and learning with research design, community outreach, curricular development, institutional action, and more.Instead, what I found when I arrived in August 2020 were tens of thousands of first-generation students bringing critical perspectives into the classroom from Virginia and just about every country on the planet. Indeed, the rest of us know about the Koch Foundation’s relationship with GMU because students, faculty, and staff made that relationship an issue, launching a national movement to “UnKoch My Campus.”

It’s been said that teaching a subject is a great way to learn it. This is doubly true when you are building a new field. Out of my back-and-forth with students, we have arrived at some preliminary lines of inquiry:

  • If systemic crises result from dysfunctions that threaten the system’s collapse, scholars must ask, “What are the logics imposed on us by the systemic dysfunctions of these times?”
  • If large numbers of people work together to bring about systemic change in the economy and elsewhere, scholars must ask, “What do movements seeking system change know?”
  • If designing new systems requires combining different structures, processes, and practices, scholars must ask, “What kind of system would most likely produce the outcomes we seek?”
  • If system change is a process that requires a path of transition, scholars must ask, “What are viable paths through which a desirable systemic transformation may occur?”

Each question can be posed in relation to the others. For instance, we might ask what the modern abolitionist movement can teach us about systems that promote community and personal security. Or we might look at how a just transition movement arose concerning the climate crisis, what that movement can tell us about how to design a post-fossil-fuel world, and what paths for system change are open to that movement.

Connecting Scholarship and Action

The approach we advocate is holistic, one that connects classroom teaching and learning with research design, community outreach, curricular development, institutional action, and more.

Building a field involves struggling with foundational assumptions about what the world is and how we can learn more about it.

One of our major initiatives at GMU is Democratizing Northern Virginia (DNOVA), a university-community partnership for enhancing community, economic, ecological, and political democracy throughout the region. The first phase involved creating a database of more than 150 existing democratic economy-building practices ranging from participatory forms of public administration and governance to local worker, community, and consumer cooperative businesses and services.

The second phase involves a newly formed DNOVA Council drawn from independent businesses, cooperatives, community organizations, unions, the university, and local governments. The Council’s job is to facilitate a third phase of targeted interventions, such as efforts to close the racial wealth gap through community wealth-building strategies.

All of this is intended to eventually make possible a fourth phase: a general systemic transition throughout Northern Virginia. This might happen through aligning or integrating current institutions with new projects, the multiplication of initiatives (such as co-op startups and conversions of existing enterprises to cooperative ownership and management), and major state, federal, cooperative, and tech sector investments.

Rethinking the World and Our Place in It

None of our projects are small, but the greatest challenges are intellectual. Building a field involves struggling with foundational assumptions about what the world is and how we can learn more about it. These challenges, which scholars refer to as ontological (nature of being), epistemological (nature of knowledge), and methodological, are no less daunting for Next System Studies.

For example, do one or many systems need to be built? The danger of treating system change as a single project should be obvious. But dealing only in systems, plural, is also a problem. If we really do live on the same planet, we all share one world system. We’d best not forget that.

Similarly, what is too big or too small for us to pay attention to? Scientific inquiry is still haunted by the ghost of positivism, an approach to learning about our world that operates as if the things about which we are uncertain should not be part of our explanations. In practice, this means that many scholars treat the things they don’t know as if they do not exist.

Another set of challenges involves who is building and making use of this field. Working across academic disciplines is easier said than done. But it’s necessary in this case. For system change to effectively advance requires tapping into ways of knowing as varied as those of engineers, art scholars, economists, and biologists.

Of course, much of the needed knowledge comes from the field, people academics like to call “practitioners” (like many NPQ readers) who bring their own ways of knowing. As a social movement scholar, I put activist knowledge at the center when studying the movement building process. What people doing the work understand about their work—their goals, the conditions they face, the strategies they employ, and the emotions they feel—is important.

However, like academic knowledge, practitioner knowledge is also limited. Practitioners often assume that our ways of understanding and describing the world are correct and shared by everyone else present. Many of those I have worked with in these early years see themselves as building a solidarity economy. Others are focused on community wealth building, participatory economics, wellbeing economics, or a just transition. But we all know that economic systems aren’t the only ones in play. Bringing the knowledge and questions presented by the abolitionist agenda, popular constitutionalism, Indigenization, municipalism, digital commoning, and more into engagement with socioeconomic approaches takes effort.

And what about methods? Methods should, for the most part, follow from the kinds of questions I just raised. At GMU, we have emphasized comparative case studies, engaged research, and institutional action.

In comparing cases, both faculty and students have sought to explain the success and limitations of community wealth building, constitutional change, food sovereignty, cooperative health, social housing, mutual aid, platform cooperatives, climate refugee resettlement, and other strategies under different conditions.

Our engaged research is actively involved in our world, seeing academics not simply as accomplices of practitioners but as specialized types of practitioners ourselves. And our emphasis on institutional action similarly places the university in the world rather than apart from it, recognizing that one priority for any public university is using its institutional resources—its purchasing power, its capital, its labor—to anchor regional development strategies toward social betterment.

The Future Is Ours

The name “Next System Studies” is new, but the field neither originated here nor is stopping here. The events that set the stage for this work began with a series of teach-ins during 2016, organized by the Next System Project and the Democracy Collaborative.

This work also builds on other emergent fields of research and action, including Abolition Studies, the Real Utopias Project, various solidarity economies, and other scholar networks. It also includes my activist and research experience and the work of many groups in which my colleagues and I have been involved.

The best counter to academic institutions doing the wrong thing may be to build their capacity to do the right thing.

Thus, like other fields that the late Erik Olin Wright once called “the emancipatory social sciences,” Next System Studies is rooted in the intellectual traditions, questions, and lessons of social movement work. Fortunately, this work is not happening in isolation. As we learned at a recent workshop, similar projects at other universities include the following:

  • Faculty at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, University of Vermont, and McGill University are working on regional ecological transitions
  • Faculty in Pittsburgh, PA, are supporting the Human Rights Cities Alliance
  • In Richmond, VA, faculty from several institutions are supporting the development of participatory budgeting, community wealth, and a regional solidarity economy
  • Faculty at York University in Toronto are collaborating with community organizations to promote housing justice and refugee rights
  • Faculty at National Louis University are educating teachers for a democratic society
  • Faculty at Copenhagen and other European universities are teaching business students about alternatives to capitalism
  • Legal scholars have started a new international section of the Law and Society Association that unites lawyers and faculty who support solidarity economy and economic democratization efforts
Scholars and activists gathered at George Mason’s Arlington campus in March 2023 for “The Promise of Next System Studies,” a three-day workshop. Photo courtesy of Emma Lesley Wright Vetter.

This is just a sample of what is already underway and what could be possible at many more institutions.

Can the academy contribute to a better world beyond capitalism? Arguably, it already has. But let’s accept that universities and colleges can be and usually are simultaneously: pillars of the state, predatory corporations, and agents of social reconstruction. The best counter to academic institutions doing the wrong thing may be to build their capacity to do the right thing.

Personally, I expect that higher education will matter a great deal in the next period of world history. Certainly, universities are not going away—for better and for worse, they are becoming ever more powerful in the global political economy as research engines, drivers of economic development, and increasingly, arbiters of authenticity in an age in which truth seems to be slipping into the digital ether. Part of developing systems that deliver justice, democracy, and sustainability in a postcapitalist society means redefining what our academic institutions do, how they are governed, and who they serve.

Gar Alperovitz is fond of telling young people that to take on system change seriously requires “laying down the next 20, 30, 40 years to this work.” In 40 years, I’ll be older than Alperovitz is today, but I’m in for the challenge.

The coming years will likely prove “exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence,” as Frederick Douglass said. Much of this work will be difficult as we are all real people with real lives. We are affected by the world we seek to understand and change, and none of us can afford to stand aside.


In addition to those named in this article, the author wishes to acknowledge the work of his faculty and staff colleagues Karen Akerlof, Amy Best, John Dale, Eleanor Finley, Gabriel Gonzalez, and Katharine Rupp; graduate students Sara Mohammed Aftab, Ilya Kim, Omer Pacal, Juhee Park, Nathaniel Smith, and Kellie Wilkerson; and his partners at The Democracy Collaborative.