We Have to Fight the Plutocrats to Build an Economy that Works
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The question of leadership
Labor, civil rights and other groups that are involved in building a progressive majority and infrastructure are important, but they can’t lead such a campaign alone. These groups are essential to funding and to creating capacity, credibility and scale. But the reality is that these important institutions have just enough political access, financial assets and institutional interests to hinder and ultimately strangle a campaign of mass resistance strong enough to force fundamental changes in how the economy is organized. In order to succeed, the campaign can’t be held in check by these institutions with too much to lose.
Unions with hundreds of millions in assets and collective bargaining agreements covering millions of workers won’t risk their treasuries and contracts by engaging in large-scale sit-ins, occupations and nonviolent civil disobedience that inevitably must overcome court injunctions and political pressure in order to succeed. The same is true for many progressive and civil rights groups that receive significant funding from corporations. Electorally focused groups have worked too hard to risk losing political access.
These aren’t criticisms. They are a reality. Groups that were built for traditional electoral politics, lobbying and collective bargaining can’t turn themselves—nor should they—into instruments of direct action challenging the status quo. And when we look back in history from the New Deal to the civil rights movement to the immigrant and gay rights movements today, we find again and again that a vibrant independent activist flank is a prerequisite for transformative change.
There isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all answer to the question of who can help build and lead this. It won’t happen spontaneously nor will it happen through traditional coalition work. In Madison the work of the teaching assistants and students was a critical piece of launching, sustaining and expanding the campaign. Along with community groups, they led the occupation of the capitol, which helped define and propel the campaign forward. In other cities, existing and emerging community-based organizing groups, newly activated students, and people and organizations steeped in nonviolent direct action can add energy, creativity and nimbleness to more traditional organizations and protests. One part of the answer may be to integrate and directly connect union members with independent groups and people, so that the campaign can’t be easily turned off because of legal or political pressure.
The cliché, from Roosevelt to Johnson to Obama, is true. We need to “make them” do the right thing. It can’t be done without the support of the labor movement and the progressive infrastructure. But rather than imagining a unified campaign spearheaded by traditional institutions, we need to think about overlapping but independent campaigns focused on challenging the power of Wall Street and out-of-control corporate power. To go on offense and win real changes in how the economy and politics of the country are organized, we need to follow three steps.
The first step is to connect the central role that Wall Street, big banks and the super-rich played in breaking our economy to concrete demands that we can fight for—demands that are not dependent on passing federal legislation. We need state and local campaigns that can mobilize around winnable issues.
We need to put ourselves on the moral high ground, name the bad guys, and offer solutions by showing how the hundreds of billions of dollars that corporations are hoarding could be put to work fixing the economy. Wall Street is bankrupting cities, states, homeowners and students with trillions in unfair debt, even after the big banks received $17 trillion in bailouts and backstops. Part of the solution is finding the right message. But more important is how we give power to our words through actions tied to solutions. We must: