By Les Leopold (Chapter 23 of
Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice)
Thank you for committing to build a new coherent national mass movement for economic, social and environmental justice. Be prepared. The one-percenters will come after you. They will try to divide, to discredit and even destroy. Your courage and careful organizing will be tested again and again. But you may be surprised by the response you get. People are waiting for something defiant. We all want to join a movement that helps spread the word, that fights for structural change, that links us together, that multiplies our efforts, that keeps us hopeful. Runaway inequality is accelerating and no one is organizing a movement to stop it. Except you. Let’s hope it’s not beyond the grasp of our imagination, even though nothing like it has been built in America for a long, long time. We need you and your efforts badly, because there is nothing in the economic universe that will automatically rescue us. There is no pendulum, no invisible political force that “naturally” will swing back towards economic fairness. Climate change is not going to heal itself. Either we wage a large-scale battle for economic, social and environmental justice, or we will witness the continued deterioration of the world we inhabit. The arc of capitalism does not bend towards justice. We must bend it.
The limits of silo organizing
Your movement will build on the activist terrain inhabited by thousands of progressive organizations, all operating within their issue- area silos. Since the end of the Vietnam War, activists have created a cornucopia of organizations covering hundreds of issues, from climate change and toxics to healthcare, education, poverty, homelessness, immigration, peace, LGBT, AIDS, abortion, police injustice, prison reform, drug decriminalization and nuclear weapons. Each of these organizations is engaged in a constant struggle to raise money to support its work and staff. Each must appeal to private philanthropic organizations by writing detailed proposals with lists of deliverables. The philanthropic foundations, in turn, contain their own issue areas, specialized staff, and underlying interests. All this only reinforces the organizational silos: Each group works on its own set of issues, following to-do lists that come from their foundation proposals. We are our deliverables. We are our to-do lists. This works well if and only if the most important issues of our existence fall within many silos. But today, even as runaway inequality runs roughshod through the siloed terrain, stopping the financial strip-mining of our economy is on very few to-do lists. Many activists still do not understand how our economy has structurally changed since 1980. Even the great crash of 2008 didn’t crack the silos. For the first time since 1929, the entire financial system was in collapse. Tril- lions of dollars were handed out to Wall Street. Unemployment hit record post-Depression levels. The crash revealed the horrors of Wall Street. The bailouts laid bare how government would come to the rescue of financial elites at our expense. The “recovery” reveals how money continues to go to the super-rich as inequality accelerates and catastrophic climate change looms. Had we been ready, the collapse would have been the perfect moment for a broad-based movement to challenge Wall Street. Instead, our silos held their ground as if taking on Wall Street was on someone else’s to-do list. As a result, we got the Obama campaign and the Tea Party. And then came Occupy Wall Street, seemingly out of nowhere. A loosely organized group around the media website Ad Busters called for the event and thousands came, then tens of thousands. In short order there were 900 encampments (modern day Hoovervilles–Large shanty towns of the unemployed during the Great Depression, ironically named after President Herbert Hoover) around the world. Still our silos rarely joined the fray.
The failure of spontaneous uprisings
As you already know, mass upheavals are not the same as organized mass movements. Occupy Wall Street was, in part, built upon inherent distrust of hierarchical organizational structures. Instead, it believed in the transformative power of spontaneous uprisings. It believed that the people in the parks could keep the anti-Wall Street movement going by making all their most important strategic decisions by mass consensus. They called it “horizontal” organizing. At first it was a joyous victory for the power of the human spirit. Young people were standing up to the power of Wall Street. It was inspirational. But it could not build a sustainable organizational structure. It seemed blind to the fact that there were millions of Americans all across the country who believed in the message and who wanted to participate, but who were not going to sleep in the parks. Who would reach them? What could the rest of us do? How would we be organized? Horizontally or not at all. If millions of us wanted to participate in Occupy Wall Street, then it was up to us to figure out how to do it on our own. That is the creed of spontaneous uprisings. Unfortunately, spontaneity was no match for Mother Nature and the destructive power of local governments that found many ways to remove the encampments as winter settled in. What was Occupy Wall Street’s survival strategy? As with spontaneous combustion in nature, unless fed, the flame will go out.
Occupy Wall Street showed us that an anti-Wall Street movement had great resonance across the country – even across much of the world. Had it broadened into a formal national organiza- tion, something powerful might have emerged with staying power. But Occupy Wall Street didn’t want formal organizations, and our many silo organizations, for the most part, stood back and watched. Perhaps, the rest of us were too deferential. “Occupy didn’t want us involved,” one union leader told me. So what? Aren’t we all the 99 percent? Shouldn’t it have been everyone’s movement, not just Occupy’s? We still owe Occupy Wall Street an enormous debt of gratitude for putting the one percent in full view. It proved that such a move- ment could be built, and it showed the power and necessity of idealism. It showed how hungry we are for a new culture that builds our spirits and our sense of solidarity with others. But for all that, Occupy wasn’t able to build a lasting organization. As one activist recently wrote to me:
I think one thing that made Occupy ignite was that it did not compromise, it did not position itself, it did not have a practical list of demands. It was an expression of idealism, and I think we need that and are hungry for it. By contrast, we silo people are very pragmatic and we compromise a lot. I think that to build a new movement, we need a new dream now. We need to give ourselves time, space and structure to dream – not just leap immediately to our agenda items. We don’t know what we’re fighting for yet.(From a labor activist to author, April 26, 2015.)
So we’re back to Wall Street business as usual, and back to carrying out our silo to-do lists. But there is another way and you have to help us get there.
The populist movement of the late nineteenth century – the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union – is a movement worth studying. (See Lawrence Goldwyn’s masterful account, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford University Press, 1978). This may have been the last time in American history that a large, dynamic, democratic movement tried to wrest financial control away from the private banking industry. After the Civil War, farmers in the South and Midwest were suffering mightily from tight monetary policies set by Wall Street, which had gained total control of the U.S. money supply, and therefore over the availability and price of credit. The burden of obtaining loans to buy farms and maintain them was enormously onerous for millions of farmers. The price of farm goods was falling while the cost of loan repayments escalated under the big banks’ tight money policies. This financial oppression led to a movement to take control of the money supply away from private bankers while at the same time building new cooperatives to store produce, sell livestock and organize the markets farmers depended upon. The vital day-to-day practice of these cooperatives led to a mass democratic culture that stood in defiance against the new corporate capitalism then being organized and operated by financial elites. The Farmers Alliance organized itself into state and county organizations, with national journals and national conventions. The Alliance fielded six thousand “lecturers” to conduct grassroots education to spread the word and to bring grassroots insights back to state and national leaders. As you review carefully this monumental struggle, which lasted over 30 years, you will understand why spontaneous uprisings are unlikely to succeed against Wall Street, and why careful long-term organizing is so badly needed. One of the biggest problems we all face lies within our own heads. We are all creatures of the prevailing political culture that undermines mass political involvement, reinforces domination by financial elites and justifies inequality. The populists built the cooperatives which gave its people an alternative day-to-day experience in democratic rule. (This differs substantively from the Saul Alinski organizing approach which dominates so many progressive organizations. The populists always discussed the biggest issues of the day. They had confidence that their people would understand why an alternative to Wall Street was needed and why cooperatives were essential to their lives.) It also gave them the confidence to demand and fight for democratic control of finance at every level. The Bank of North Dakota, the only public bank in the U.S., grew from this new culture. Building an alternative political culture will be among your biggest challenges. Siloed movement activists have spent their entire lives within a particular organizing framework and structure that focuses on achieving relatively short-term deliverables. Few of us work on big-picture education and on large-scale transformative organizing projects. Fewer still are directly challenging the power of Wall Street. That means that much of our current organizing culture does not have the patience for the long-term, self-conscious democratic movement-building that is necessary to halt runaway inequality. We also don’t yet have the collective vision and strategy we need to do all this. Silo organizers counter this critique by saying that such big picture movements are too vague, too indefinite and well beyond the scope of what can be funded through the philanthropic community. They are correct. Building a new movement is an indefinite project that could take a generation to blossom. It is unlikely to sit comfortably on many foundation dockets. It will not have the specificity of our current batch of deliverables. What it does have going for it is the chance of success. But this kind of statement only makes sense if we face up to the fact that our current silo structure is failing. Collectively our current to-do lists are simply no match for runaway inequality. We are losing. We’ve got to try something different. Therefore, your job will be to change our siloed political culture and create a new organizing life that captures us, that provides us with a sense of movement and self-confidence just as the Populists did. A major problem will be to create day to day practice that reflects our ideals, the new culture we hope to create, and our new agenda. The Populists had their cooperatives. What will we have?
Race, class, environment, peace
Our siloed generation has not been able to construct an understanding that links racial oppression, gender/sexual orientation discrimination, rising inequality, environmental destruction and the anti-war efforts. Instead, we too often argue about which issue is most important. Worse still, we create a silo around each. This was not always the case. After WWII, radicals (communists, socialists, social democrats and others) were horrified about the brewing Cold War, the arms race, civil rights and the attacks on organized labor, starting with opposition to the Labor Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartley). (The labor law passed in 1947 which revoked the use of many of the tools used by labor that had led to the massive surge of organizing.) Radicals believed that corporate elites and their ruthless drive for profits were behind all of these issues. At the time, many believed that capitalism itself was the root cause and eventually should be replaced by democratic socialism of some sort, although there was no across-the-board agreement about what that might look like. In any event, they had no doubt about the interconnectedness of injustice. Even under the brutal assault on radicalism led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, radicals kept the interconnectedness alive. Radicals were involved in the early civil rights movement. They were in the forefront of the anti-nuclear testing movement which then evolved into the modern environmental movement and fueled the earliest efforts against the war in Vietnam. But as that generation passed, so did our sense of inherent interconnectedness among all the oppression and destruction that comes from a system that produces runaway inequality. Your job is to rebuild that interconnectedness – to help us all see and feel the realities that cut through our silos. Of course, the tensions around racial and gender oppression will not go away within our mass movement, let alone outside of it. But you must help us always see that we are far better off fighting together than among ourselves – that an injury to one is truly an injury to all. Some in the environmental movement may see runaway inequality as yet another silo, while the peril of climate change is the real silo-breaker. After all, climate change poses a direct threat to humans across the globe. Fortunately, a growing movement for climate justice is based on the understanding that economic inequality and climate change are inextricably bound together, and that these challenges need to be addressed in tandem. Financial strip-mining of our econ- omy both accelerates climate change and undermines all efforts to ameliorate it or accommodate it. Both climate change and runaway inequality are global silo-breakers.
Sooner or later you will be urged to push the new agenda into the electoral arena. You will then face a fundamental political choice: Work within, near and around the Democratic Party? Start a new party? Or avoid electoral politics altogether? You certainly know by now that both major parties are deeply controlled by the financial strip-miners. While the occasional maverick will be elected to Congress, it is highly unlikely that such fighters can move a long-term agenda to end runaway inequality. But if you choose to build a new party, you will run smack into an enormous cultural wall created by over 70 years of full-throt- tled union support for the Democrats. For many unions, getting out the vote for the Democrats forms their entire political culture. It’s almost unthinkable for most unions even to consider bolting from the Democrats. For no matter how anti-labor the Democrats become, the Republicans are always worse. Therefore, harming the Democrats in any way will seem highly self-destructive to most of your union allies. This suggests that a new politics outside the Democratic Party will have to go far beyond a union base. Could such a party catch on and become viable over the long run? No one has the answer. But as more and more people become thoroughly alienated from the two major parties, new political space opens.
Connect and educate
Right now tens of thousands of us are engaged in progressive activi- ties within our silos. Millions more are deeply angry with the financial strip-miners and their political lapdogs. Part of your job is to educate us towards a set of common goals and help us become part of a common cause. We cannot win CEO wage caps or public banks or tough climate change regulations or anti-racist criminal justice reforms unless we pool our to-do lists into a carefully constructed program to end runaway inequality and global warming. Only careful organizing that unifies and multiplies our state, local, national, and interna- tional activities can get us there. We ask you to organize such a national movement with a coherent agenda and structure – something that can grow, that can educate and that can speak with a loud clear voice. It’s a monumental task but it’s not beyond your reach. In Greece and in Spain progressive populist movements are growing as they battle against the financial strip-mining of their economies. You are not alone. We are not alone. Sometime soon, we hope that you convene the first national meeting to forge a new agenda that takes on runaway inequality and climate change. Or perhaps you will need to build state by state before such a national gathering. But eventually it must have a name, and all of us must be able to join because we believe in the agenda, because we believe we must act, and because we believe in each other. We’re counting on you and we’re sure you won’t let us down. We’d be honored if any portion of this book could help in your educational efforts.
In solidarity, Les Leopold Labor Day, 2015
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