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"Can We Organize for Economic Justice Beyond Capitalism?,"

by LeeAnn Hall & Danny HoSang March/April 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

In October 2008, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan shocked many observers when he acknowledged that the economic crisis had forced him to rethink his long-standing faith in the tenets of free markets. With the global economy in a tailspin, one of the most prominent advocates of unregulated markets publicly questioned the governing ideology of 21st Century capitalism.

Ironically, Greenspan broached two topics that community organizers in the U.S. often take pains to avoid: ideology and capitalism. A long tradition of “pragmatic” issue-based organizing has admonished organizers to be wary of all matters ideological. In Rules for Radicals (1971), Saul Alinsky explained that “no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: “For the general welfare,” Alinsky instead advised “real radicals” to focus on immediate, winnable issues that created concrete changes and built lasting organization; pragmatism was the only ideology that should concern organizers.

In an October 2012 essay in the Boston Review, Michael Gecan of the Industrial Areas Foundation reiterated this ethos in extolling an organizing approach that is “non-ideological, focused, flexible, and short-term,” and rooted in “an effective freedom at odds with ideology.”

This approach—as practiced by the Industrial Areas Foundation and many other organizing formations—has produced countless improvements in cities and communities across the country, and engaged a broad group of people often excluded from traditional politics in the governance of their lives. Both of us were largely trained in this tradition and have spent many years attempting to build organizations around these principles.

At the same time, a growing segment of organizing groups are questioning whether pragmatism and competent organizing practice alone is capable of responding to the crises that are now a permanent feature of the contemporary economy: the collapse of the housing market, structural unemployment, massive incarceration, rising student and household debt, and deepening race and gender disparities.

The imperative to recreate and transform our economy comes from three fundamental dangers that we face today: the crisis of global inequity that thrives on racial hierarchies and bias; threats to democracy from increased militarization and corporate control; and the global environmental crisis. Ignoring the confluence of these crises is not an option; we need to lay claim to innovation, ingenuity and inventiveness to advance new solutions.

In the face of large-scale migration, permanent war and an unprecedented concentration of wealth, how must organizing practice respond and evolve? Is it possible to imagine, articulate and implement new visions of economic life beyond capitalism? How can pragmatic, issue-based organizations engage such ideologically-driven challenges?

Learning from the Movement

The Alliance for a Just Society (AJS, formerly the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations), a national network of state and local organizing groups focused on economic, social and racial justice, has begun a long-term initiative to grapple with these questions. Part of this effort includes an effort to engage and learn from other social justice organizers, thinkers and activists around such challenges.

To this end, in September 2012, AJS convened a two-day gathering in Los Angeles titled “Our Economy: Envisioning and Organizing for Economic Justice Beyond Capitalism.” The meeting brought together organizers, trainers, academics and grassroots leaders to consider the alternative policies, practices, theories and worldviews that might create more ethical, equitable and sustainable economies.

Michael Leon Guerrero, who recently completed an eight-year tenure as National Coordinator of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJA), opened the meeting with a talk describing lessons organizers in the U.S. might learn from contemporary social movements in Latin America. In most Latin American countries, Guerrero explained, broad sectors of the population are regularly engaged in discussions about neoliberal policy and ideology. Similarly, discussions of “21st Century socialism” adapted to the conditions, history and culture of individual nations often reside at the center of national political debates.

Guerrero discussed the range of forces and conditions that gave rise to this consciousness and political engagement: a long history of struggle against structural adjustment and other neoliberal policies; traditions of liberation theology; the influence of socialism and communism on the region’s political culture; and the incorporation of anti-capitalist ideas and frameworks within electoral politics and the state. Guerrero concluded by explaining how organizations in the U.S., including GGJA and groups participating in the U.S. Social Forum, were working to frame economic justice campaigns in the U.S. in the larger context of neoliberalism and global justice.

Francis Calpotura, Executive Director of the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA), which focuses on winning fairness, equity and accountability in the global remittance (money transfer) industry, explained on a later panel that organizers should remain alert for the everyday ways that people can reconsider the legitimacy of capitalism and free markets. Rather than trying to imagine the wholesale transformation of global capitalism, Calpotura suggested that we can build from a variety of existing practices and habits—including co-ops, community credit systems, alternative remittance systems and even Craig’s List—to legitimate and make visible forms of economic activity not solely based on profit maximization and wealth accumulation.

On a panel examining the ways critiques of capitalism could be incorporated into everyday organizing campaigns, Dylan Rodriguez, a Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, argued that organizers must acknowledge and confront the deeply conservative orientation of Alinskyism. Rules for Radicals, Rodriguez maintained, was deeply dismissive of the mass-based anti-colonial and economic justice movements vying for legitimacy at the time, and this anti-radical underpinning continues to prevent many community organizers from discussing the impact of capitalism and genocide that many people can identify in their daily lives.

Steve Williams, co-founder of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) in San Francisco, reflected on his visits to South Africa in the 1990s to raise the importance of political education and discussion as an everyday practice within social justice organizations. Grassroots leaders, members and organizers must afford themselves the resources and space to understand the complexity of the economic and political structures they face in order to develop effective long-term campaigns.

Tammy Bang Luu of the Labor Community Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union (BRU) in Los Angeles described the uncertain ground on which their work for transformative organizing around mass transit takes place. On some days, she explained, the BRU’s work has the feeling of a mass-based social movement rooted in widely felt anti-racist principles and politics. At other times, they feel like modest efforts to simply win more buses. Luu argues that organizers must be comfortable with this contradiction, so that they can recognize and have the capacity to respond to opportunities for broader political transformation when they arise.

Ideas into Action

These insights, and the comments raised during other panels and workshops at the meeting, affirmed for the leadership of the Alliance for a Just Society that we must develop a capacity to imagine a world beyond capitalism that can be advanced in our campaigns for economic, racial and social justice. Creating this shift will not be easy—it will require a cultural, power and policy shift—to move in waves across our country and the world, resulting in the re-imagining and transformation of our economy and society.

Such a transformation depends less on a change in rhetoric and more on an examination of the way all of us interact with profit-generating practices and institutions in our lives. For example, most organizing groups now have a well-developed critique of the role the banking industry has played in producing the current economic crisis, yet many families and communities are absolutely dependent on this same system to meet their daily needs. Retailers like Wal-Mart decimate wage standards and destabilize local economies, but also furnish a large portion of the (meager) jobs and access to goods on which many people depend.

This is the deep contradiction and challenge of our moment. In order to address the current crisis, we are often forced to rely on the very structures, institutions and ideas that wreaked havoc on so many families and communities in the first place. How can we reframe our existing campaign fights to advance alternative economic perspectives? What new forms of political education, leadership development and approaches to campaign strategy are necessary to support such a transformation?

We see at least three short-term imperatives. First, we must continue to ratchet up direct action campaigns that directly confront corporations and challenge and limit their growing power. For example, AJS affiliates joined a wave of actions against big banks in 2012 designed to further highlight their role in the foreclosure crisis and the economic collapse. The next phase of the campaign involves winning support for partnership banks, modeled after the North Dakota State Bank, that ensure public funds are invested and controlled for the public good. These campaigns have the potential to challenge the financial and political capital of big banks by redirecting state funds to more accountable institutions. The efforts have required both compromise and partnership—including with small businesses, community banks and the local agricultural sector—to help build support for the proposition that the interests of big banks often run counter to the economic development and job creation needs of local communities.

Second, we must build our power by investing in building strong active civic and political organizations and creating a truly participatory democracy. For AJS, this means continuing to challenge the claim that “corporations are persons” and that corporate interests are compatible with a robust and active citizenry. Campaigns that highlight the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, highlight the connection between corporate formations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and voter suppression efforts, and invest in long-term voter education and mobilization are critical.

Finally, we must push out an alternative and broad-based worldview, sharing bold ideas and constructing a new foundation for an economy that functions in the public interest and does more than simply ameliorate the worst of market excesses. This cannot be an exercise in doctrinaire thinking, nor simply focus-group- tested turns of phrase. Instead, we have to engage one another in a process of specifying the practices, values and outcomes within the dominant system that we reject, and in generating (and re-generating) the characteristics of the one we imagine.

AJS has developed a working document, “Building a Movement for a Constructive Commonwealth,” that seeks to highlight some attributes of this worldview—clear limitations on the political, economic and cultural authority of corporations; an exploration of the value of public ownership of resources; and a particular commitment to analyzing the role of race and racism in structuring and legitimating inequalities—as an initial step in this process.

In short, capitalism and ideology can no longer be taboo topics in the world of issue-based community organizing. They affect every aspect of our lives, and we do a disservice to our constituencies and our politics if we refuse to engage them, even if we don’t always know the best way to do it.

LeeAnn Hall is Executive Director of the Alliance for a Just Society. leeanne@alliancefor
Danny HoSang is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Political Science at the Univ. of Oregon in Eugene and a board member of the Alliance for a Just Society.

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