Are Progressives Depressed or Too Privileged to Produce Social Change? Or Are We Just Failing to Organize Effectively?
A few weeks ago Bruce Levine wrote a provocative article titled "Are Americans a Broken People? Why We've Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression." Levine suggested that many progressives and much of the general population may be so broken by the system that they've given up hope and become passive. He uses the metaphor of an abusive relationship, in which lack of hope and the sense that nothing matters make people passive instead of angry.
Levine, a radical psychotherapist practicing in Cincinnati, Ohio, has carved out a popular niche with readers, writing about psychological issues related to politics and change. Two of his most-read articles are " The Case for Giving Eli Lilly the Corporate Death Penalty" and " Has American Society Gone Insane?"
Longtime labor organizer and economic thinker Les Leopold, whose recent book The Looting of America was excerpted on AlterNet, took offense to Levine's article and wrote a response. While calling Levine's argument an eyeopener, Leopold wrote that he has not experienced the passivity Levine describes in labor unions and among progressives. Leopold insists that progress will come from the hard work of organizing: building infrastructure, connecting issues and thinking big. We can't count on people like Al Gore, who was passive after the 2000 election, and Barack Obama.
Levine crafted a counterresponse to Leopold. In his rejoinder, Levine made a case that there are two classes of progressives. One group is highly educated and relatively well off. They are often older, like Levine and Leopold, and do not have alienating jobs. They tend to enjoy certain privileges and have fairly good access to health care, etc. In another group are those who are truly hurting from the breakdown of the economic system.
Levine suggests that the more privileged progressives may be in denial about the difficulties that working-class people experience; young people who can't find jobs and are burdened by heavy debt from college loans; older people who saw a lot of their savings evaporate when the stock market fell or their companies ended their pensions.
Needless to say, some fundamental questions are being asked here. Are progressives collectively depressed and incapable of action, depleted by the relentless corporate machine? How much of progressive inaction is a consequence of how comfortable the progressive elite is, and the gap between affluent progressives and younger, less prosperous progressives; especially those who do not work in the nonprofit sector? How effective are the cherished, fundamental principles of organizing and social change against the power of the banks, health care corporations and tens of thousands of lobbyists? Is the basic organizing model no longer applicable? Does it need revision, or is it simply a matter of applying it more effectively and trying harder?
Like most important debates, there is no one truth, and Leopold and Levine both make important and provocative arguments. On the one hand, resources are not going to be more fairly distributed and corporations are not going to be held accountable unless there is more effective mobilizing with both grassroots pressure and in the electoral arena. But at this point what is the path to change? Especially when disenchantment with Obama seems to breed cynicism and withdrawal, rather than anger and action?
Is traditional organizing for social change feasible in the current environment? And how might it happen, especially given Levine's suggestion that elite progressives are too comfortable to be in the streets fighting for poor people or against wars with a voluntary army, which provide employment to many young people at a time when jobs are scarce.
While I admire Les Leopold's principles, I wish they were more effective at this point in history. And I do think progressives have minimized the class question. As a consequence, some of us have a hard time imagining, or perhaps don't want to think about, how hard it is for tens of millions of people in this country to just get by.