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"Social Justice Movements in a Liminal Age,"

by Deepak Bhargava May/June 2012 issue of Poverty & Race

Liminal – 1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold


The brief, ecstatic Obama-centered period of 2008-2010 seems to resist all of the stories that have since been spun about it, from triumphant narratives of transformation, to angry jeremiads of betrayal of the progressive cause, to the apocalyptic stories of national ruin that animate the Right. In sober hindsight, it looks more like an opening chapter than a climax: a period in which a few major, hard-fought breakthroughs that will tangibly improve people’s lives were won; many opportunities were squandered, and many crises were left unaddressed; no grand ideological re-alignment occurred; and the social justice movement overall did honorable work, but struggled to make the most of an extraordinary moment.

I remember vividly now a moment in the heady days after the 2008 election, when some heralded the triumphant return of a Rainbow Coalition that might produce a lasting progressive governing majority. A close aide and friend to the President said to me that in his view nothing fundamental about American politics and society had changed, other than that there would be a new occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and that it would be a mistake to over-read the election results, as many were doing. The balance of power among contending social forces in America was not essentially altered. Most Americans who voted for and against Obama, contrary to what ideologues of both left and right like to believe, subscribe to no coherent doctrine of any kind and are capable of holding utterly contradictory opinions without discomfort. There had been no tectonic shift in ideological underpinnings. And whatever one chooses to believe about the underlying commitments of the President, it is indisputable that he was elected by himself, not with legions of Members of Congress sworn to his or any agenda. In other words, we have gotten pretty much what might be expected, given the prevailing social conditions, political institutions and ideological contours of the country.

The achievements of this period—the largest expansion of anti-poverty programs and the largest expansion of the New Deal state in 40 years—were far from trivial in policy terms. They were achieved largely through disciplined, hard-fought ground campaigns which have not received the appreciation or recognition they deserve, perhaps understandably so, given the period of backlash that followed. It is notable that what was achieved in policy terms was in no way accompanied by a story that has stuck—and if there is a great failure of both the Obama Administration and the Left in this period, it has been (until Occupy!) a failure of story-telling.

That this period was brought to an abrupt end by the Tea Party, virulent right-wing populism and its electoral expression in 2010 also raises the questions about whether the country is now in for a lasting period of backlash and whether the hopes raised in 2008 were altogether unjustified.

It may be that the arc of the story is hard to decipher because we are still in the opening chapters. We are, I would argue, in a liminal period—a confusing, contradictory and highly unstable period of transition in which many futures are now possible—and aspects of those very different futures are manifest in our present. The confluence of the economic crisis, demographic change, and the radicalization of the Right have created a highly volatile situation, and we are probably not done lurching back and forth between the futures presaged by the elections of 2008 and 2010. Neither the hope for an inclusive, just world nor the prospect of a brutally unequal and racialized one are fantastical—they are both here, right now.

Perhaps what is most striking about the present moment is the extent to which, after such wild swings in the public debate, nothing definitive about our country’s trajectory is yet decided. Not even the highly consequential election of 2012 alone is likely to decide the question. What we do now and in the coming years matters a great deal.

If it is true that we are in a historically significant period of transition, it may be helpful to take a step back from the maelstrom of events and ask some grounding questions. What are the forces and factors at play in this current period that will shape the trajectory of our future? What are the key strategic tasks that those concerned with social justice must tackle in order to win the day, particularly those areas in which we need more than incremental progress, where we need major breakthroughs?

This brief paper is not a roadmap to the future, but more an inventory of some of the key questions that face us in hopes that it may facilitate the focusing of our discussions. Though the questions are closely inter-related, for purposes of this paper I will lift up four areas of particular strategic concern where we have urgent needs:

  • A cogent progressive approach to the economy, particularly with respect to the questions of mass unemployment and the future of work, that is grounded in a coherent theory not only of re-distribution but also of wealth creation.

  • A practical approach to addressing structural racism that can work at the levels of hearts and minds, policy and constituency-building all at once. The highly racialized discourse of the national political environment has raised the stakes on getting this right.

  • A deep reckoning with the cultural and moral force of radical individualism, which stands at this stage as an enormous obstacle to advancing a social justice agenda in the U.S.

  • A clear-eyed understanding of the nature of our conservative opposition, in order that we might more strategically and effectively resist, and more effectively speak to the center.

I’ll conclude with a brief inventory of some of the assets and liabilities that our movement carries into this critical period.

The Economy

The depth of the crisis we face is evident to all in the catastrophe of unemployment, increasing poverty and foreclosures that has gripped the United States. What has perhaps been less well understood is how deep the roots of that crisis are. While the crisis was precipitated by the financial collapse, the source of our problems is deeper than the invention of toxic financial instruments. We will therefore need a transformational program for the “real” economy as the foundation for a social justice agenda in this decade.

Joseph Stiglitz and others have argued that much as the Great Depression had its roots in the transition from agriculture to manufacturing and the difficulty of absorbing a massive new labor force, so too today’s crisis has its roots in the transition from an industrial economy to a service economy and the resulting displacement of vast numbers of workers. This has been compounded in a vicious circle, as Robert Reich and others have pointed out, by levels of inequality that actually retard growth and by an aggressive and concerted attack by corporations and the Right on the social consensus that had kept inequality within bounds in the post-war period. The debate about the role of globalization in the current economic crisis is unsettled, but what does seem clear is that multi-national companies can make record profits while radically shrinking employment levels in the U.S. That development makes working people extremely vulnerable.

I never thought I would quote Larry Summers approvingly, but his take in the Jan. 8, 2012 Financial Times captures the dilemma well:

“The spread of stagnation and abnormal unemployment from Japan to the rest of the industrialized world does raise doubts about capitalism’s efficacy as a promoter of employment and rising living standards for a broad middle class. The problem is genuine. Serious questions about the fairness of capitalism are being raised. These are driven by sharp increases in unemployment beyond the business cycle—one in six American men is likely to be out of work even after the economy recovers—combined with dramatic rises in the share of income going to the top 1 percent (and even the top .01 percent) of the population and declining social mobility. The problem is real and profound and seems very unlikely to correct itself untended.”

If this line of thinking is correct, the problem is not just how to get back at the banks, but how to transform an economy that at the level of production will no longer generate reliable or steady employment for millions of people. Barring massive intervention by the government to increase demand in labor markets, we will be living with a massive rate of unemployment for a decade at least. This will not only create misery for millions of unemployed people but also depress wages and working conditions for people with jobs throughout the West, make austerity the ruling paradigm, create fertile ground for nativism and viable far-right political parties (as we are seeing in Europe), and stifle efforts at worker organization. This is why chronic joblessness is the central political problem for the Left in the West today.

Unfortunately, the Left has, with many notable exceptions, been better at answering questions of redistribution than in posing coherent alternatives with respect to wealth creation and job creation. A coherent and vicious program of austerity will not be defeated without a credible alternative. In the short run, it is critical that we be prepared with a cogent program for the post-election period in which the Bush tax cuts are slated to expire and “sequestration” of domestic and defense spending will begin. This is an enormous opportunity to demand a set of affirmative, creative interventions to address persistent joblessness through government action, coupled with a traditional redistributionist approach anchored in tax policy, and to begin to lay the foundations for a progressive story about the economy. One can imagine, for example, a strategy to tie the expiration of the Bush tax cuts to a massive, sectorally focused jobs program (targeted to communities most in need) in areas such as care work, infrastructure, education and the green economy. There is no reason in principle that we could not create 10 or 15 million new jobs, using the revenue of the expiring Bush tax cuts to do so—and such a demand should and can be made by a broad alliance.

Over the long term, we urgently need more robust discussions among and between the various camps and thinkers on the Left about what the shape of a new economy should or could be. Is our highest aspiration a version of Scandinavian social democracy with strong safety nets? A German- or Chinese-inspired statist approach with strong intervention in labor markets and sectors of the economy? What role for local economies, cooperatives and sustainability concerns, which many argue should be central to a new economic vision? Until we have a clearer picture of the economic system we seek to build, it will be extremely difficult to organize the kind of movement needed to shake us loose from the grip of market fundamentalism.

Structural Racism

One of the great accomplishments of the past decades has been the articulation by many thinkers and the embrace by significant parts (though not yet a majority) of the progressive movement of an analytic framework called “structural racism.” One of the great failures of this same period has been the inability to put the analysis into action in a large-scale way at the level of consciousness, campaigns or policy.

The stakes on this are getting higher. Heightened and overt racist appeals in the national political discourse, evident in the Republican Presidential primary but not only there, are obviously fed by animus to an African-American President and by deep unease about the demographic change that is gripping the country. Manuel Pastor and Vanessa Carter are right that the conflict between an aging, fearful, shrinking white population and a growing, more hopeful younger brown and black population is the axis on which our politics now turns. (See their “Reshaping the Social Contract” in the Jan./Feb. 2012 Poverty & Race.) It lies at the heart of nasty anti-immigrant attacks, but also attacks on voting rights, financing for public education and the role of government itself. We can easily imagine a future in which full citizenship is effectively denied to large numbers of people of color (because of mass incarceration, immigration policies that foster a large undocumented population, and the restriction of the franchise by means of 21st Century poll taxes)—and an angry, older white minority holds on to power for a generation at the expense of the common good. The failure to offer a bold, affirmative and specific program on race around which constituencies can be mobilized and public debate conducted leaves the field clear for a dangerous, racist paradigm to take root.

Changing demography is, of course, the single greatest potential asset for progressives in the 21st Century, if we can build a real coalition among African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. Doing so will require the articulation of a clear proactive racial justice agenda and aggressive coalition-building strategies. There are promising seeds of this all over the country—and I’m particularly moved by the way in which the debate over the country’s worst anti-immigrant law in Alabama has sparked a multi-racial coalition with great promise.

I do not know the answers to the questions I am posing, but here offer some thoughts to get the discussion started. In the realm of policy, I think the related crises of mass incarceration and mass unemployment, both of which are devastating in their impact, may offer the two strongest entry points to building a stronger racial justice movement in the country. In terms of consciousness, we need to develop a popular language around racial justice with great moral force that can be applied across a range of issues and problems. One of the main negative effects of the culture of individualism discussed below is that racism is seen nearly exclusively by the public in terms of questions of intent and individual behavior—structures and inter-locking systems are invisible to most, and we therefore need a moral language that can break through this pervasive way of understanding race. And in terms of movement-building, strengthening movement infrastructure in African-American communities, and deliberate building of relationships— particularly between African Americans and Latinos— are the critical and obvious, but not necessarily easy, tasks in front of us.

A Culture of Individualism

A thoughtful recent analysis by Ron Brownstein of polling since the economic crisis began by the National Journal found the following:

“One theme consistently winding through the polls is the emergence of what could be called a "reluctant self-reliance," as Americans look increasingly to reconstruct economic security from their own efforts, in part because they don't trust outside institutions to provide it for them.The surveys suggest that the battered economy has crystallized a gestating crisis of confidence in virtually all of the nation's public and private leadership class—from elected officials to the captains of business and labor. Taken together, the results render a stark judgment: At a time when they believe they are navigating much more turbulent economic waters than earlier generations, most Americans feel they are paddling alone. Shawn Kurt, an unemployed lumber-mill worker in Molalla, Ore., who responded to one survey, spoke for many when he plaintively declared, ‘I myself don't see no one trying to help me.’ The Heartland Monitor surveys document pervasive dissatisfaction with the nation's direction; deep apprehension about the opportunity for future generations (particularly among whites); a collapse of faith in the public and private leadership class; intense political polarization that largely tracks racial lines; and the absence of a reliable majority for either side's vision of government's role in society, all leavened only by individual Americans' reluctant self-reliance and their tenacious faith in their own ability to manage the mounting financial risks they see confronting them. Those attitudes cumulatively resemble the sentiments a poll might find in a Third World country before a coup.”

Notably, when people are asked whether their financial well-being depends mostly on their own actions or on factors out of their control, even in the face of striking evidence to the contrary, nearly 60% cite their own actions, compared to less than 40% who cite factors beyond their control. Interestingly, people of color are more likely to say that their financial well-being rests on their own efforts than are whites.

This radical individualism shows up everywhere in the culture—from the cult of Ron Paul to the near hegemonic penetration of a therapeutic language of self-realization and self-expression in our everyday conversation. And it is coupled with a deep distrust of all institutions—banks and corporations to be sure, but government and labor unions just as much so.

The consequences of this phenomenon for progressive politics are enormous. Efforts to target corporations and banks are important and mine a deep vein of public sympathy, but unless the fundamental conviction of the efficacy of collective enterprise is restored, it will reinforce solipsism and skepticism rather than leverage major structural change. There has been no progressive project in human history that has not relied on the centrality of community—a shared sense of what we owe to each other. The vernaculars of the moral language that nourished that core conviction are in deep decline.

I am very unclear how to tackle this problem, because its roots are so deep and profound. We at the Center for Community Change have tried to lift up “community values” in a variety of campaigns, and I’m encouraged that transformational campaigns like Caring Across Generations are leading explicitly with interdependence as a core value. (CAG is led by Domestic Workers United and Jobs With Justice—www.caringacrossgenerations. org) Still more is needed to nourish the taproots of solidarity and community in the culture. Ilyse Hogue has intriguing ideas about renewing the connection between service, mutual aid and progressive politics (see her article, “Why the Right Attacked Unions, ACORN and Planned Parenthood” in the March 21, 2100 edition of The Nation)—and it may be that some robust experiments in a variety of fields are needed to develop a path forward. There is not likely to be a shortcut to developing structures, institutions, habits and practices that embody values of interdependence and community in an experiential way. Caring circles for mutual aid, cooperatives, the revival and reconstruction of community fabric in particular neighborhoods or places, and even spiritual practices and rituals may be part of the path forward.

Understanding the Right, Speaking to the Center

It has become commonplace now on the left to trace a lineage for modern -day conservatism—back to Goldwater, Buckley, Oakeshott, Hayek and all the way back to Burke. But it is the discontinuities between today’s Right and the conservatism of previous eras that are striking. Mark Lilla put this well in an insightful article “Republicans for Revolution,” in the Jan. 12, 2112 NY Review of Books:

“What we have not seen much of, except on the fringes of American politics, are redemptive reactionaries who think the only way forward is to destroy what history has given us and wait for a new order to emerge out of the chaos. At least until now. The real news on the American right is the mainstreaming of political apocalypticism. This has been brewing among intellectuals since the Nineties, but in the past four years, thanks to the right-wing media establishment and economic collapse, it has reached a wider public and transformed the Republican Party. . . All this is new—and it has little to do with the principles of conservatism . . . No, there is something darker and dystopic at work here. People who know what kind of new world they want to create through revolution are trouble enough; those who only know what they want to destroy are a curse.”

There is an increasingly dominant part of the conservative movement in America that is playing for keeps—to roll back the 20th Century and blow up the current social order and most of what we take for granted in it—from the existence of safety nets to voting rights. The combination of this apocalyptic temperament with vast sums of corporate money hell-bent on using power to acquire more power (and destroy the power centers of the Left, particularly labor, but also Planned Parenthood and others) is a very dangerous stew.

Its implications for us are three-fold. First, that for a weak and besieged Left a “united front” approach that attempts to engage with centrist groups and constituencies to marginalize the Right is imperative. This is not a period where the vanity of small differences or sectarianism will serve us well. Second, that we must not delude ourselves, as I fear some have done in the wake of the disappointments (real or perceived) of the Obama Administration, that electoral politics do not matter. In liminal moments where multiple futures are possible, who controls the state matters a great deal—as Scott Walker has convincingly demonstrated in Wisconsin. Third, we must resist the siren song of magical thinking, particularly the trope that the vast majority of Americans already agree with us and that we are one militant action away from our own Arab Spring. Recruitment and engagement of the millions of people who do not already agree with us about everything is at least as important a task as mobilizing the already converted for action.

Learning to speak effectively to the center of American politics from our core values about this central troika of issues—the economy, race, and community—may be the fundamental challenge for the Left in the 21st Century. This is not mainly a matter of “messaging” or polling and focus groups – it will require reconstructing and refreshing our core ideas, at the roots, which will put us in a much better position to speak to the vast majority of Americans.

Conclusion: Can Our Movements Meet the Moment?

We bring many assets to the fights ahead of us. New and inspiring leadership in many key institutions. A real resistance movement in many states against the excesses of the right that have in many cases turned the tide. Bold attempts to do fresh thinking on the issues laid out above, some of which are finding their way into innovative practice. New approaches to organizing that move the locus of recruitment, strategy and action away from paid organizers to unpaid activists moved by big ideas. An Occupy Movement that, whatever it does next, has opened up political space. Some parts our movement are growing, especially the LGBT and immigrant rights movements, and they are having a real impact on public consciousness and culture even through the ups and downs of particular policy battles. And while demography is not destiny, the growth of constituencies of color is an enormous advantage for us in the 21st Century.

And we also face some daunting challenges: the extraordinary dominance of money in politics and corporate power; chronic under-investment in African-American organizing capacity; a lack of organizing to scale in nearly any constituency, with limited exceptions; continued and exacerbated instability in the sources of financing for social justice work; the continued existential threat to the labor movement in the U.S., without which a progressive movement is difficult to conceive; a culture of individualism that is deeply hostile to the notions of community upon which our politics fundamentally depend; and major ideological lacunae, particularly in the field of economics.

Yet I see encouraging signs that our movements can meet the moment. In 2011, we were called to defend some of the great gains of the 20th Century, from voting rights to collective bargaining, the New Deal and Great Society social insurance programs that are our heritage.

Progressives showed up to fight—from Wisconsin to Wall Street, and in many other less well noticed and some unlikely battlegrounds—in Ohio, Maine, North Carolina, Arizona, Montana and Alabama. The question that now faces us is whether, having weathered the onslaught, we can go from opposing to proposing—whether we can build an independent mass movement that is durable, resilient and grounded in big, transformative ideas about economics, race and community and is willing to engage with the vast majority of Americans who are not yet progressives.
The future is very much within our grasp.

Deepak Bhargava is Executive Director of the Center for Community Change in Washington, DC, a national organization whose mission is to build the power and capacity of low-income people and people of color to change the policies and institutions that affect their lives. His article was originally prepared for a Univ. of Calif.-Berkeley gathering of its new Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

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