From Class Consciousness to Social Change

There are four fundamental elements to building the kind of economic and racial-justice movement America needs today, and they must be pursued together—indeed, they need to be understood as the same project. First, there is the work of articulating a cogent alternative to market fundamentalism, one that is deeply informed by a racial-justice analysis, because we know that the absence of the latter will doom multiracial change efforts in this country. Such ideas need to be informed and enriched by conversations in communities—much as the populist movement built a national agenda by sending thousands of lecturers around the country to not only talk but listen, so that its agenda resonated with everyday people’s values and experiences.

Second, we need to radically reconceptualize the forms through which we build power for working people. No change benefitting the bottom third of the country—the 106 million people living in households earning less than twice the poverty line—can possibly advance without mass organization of that bottom third. Unions are in decline, but they and other sectors of the left still have the resources to try big new experiments. From retail-worker organizing in New York City, to the building of a new form of working-class organization in Ohio and a Latino political force in Arizona, significant efforts are unfolding that involve deep collaborations among unions and community and faith groups. Such efforts must not be viewed as side projects by existing organizations but rather as a central, collective responsibility of the entire movement. Technology certainly has an important role to play in this work, but even more important is experimenting with new modes of person-to-person organizing that emphasize worldview more than narrow self-interest, relationships more than short-term transactions, and the development of volunteer community leaders—not paid organizers—as powerful political actors.

Third, we need to create spaces and places that nurture the habits of collective action, reciprocity, and community on which progressive politics and a decent civilization depend. We need to offer people practical alternatives to going it alone and making the best of a bad situation—the default response of any sane person in tough economic times. To that end, we should experiment with cooperatives, associations, and new modes of service that reweave the social fabric. Perhaps the most vibrant movement in America today, the grassroots organizations that are the backbone of the fight for immigrant rights have merged these elements in a way that other movements could learn from. Many of these groups combine organizing for power and political change with the provision of direct services including legal advice, education, and training.

Finally, we need to do politics, but in a changed relationship with the Democratic Party. We must build independent political power at the state level, which is the crucial unit of change in America. We must interweave our electorally oriented and our issue-related work. There may be a lesson, too, in the willingness of immigrant activists in Arizona to occasionally support pro-immigrant Republicans, who have now—twice—decisively defeated (now former) state Senator Russell Pearce, who authored SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant legislation.

A recent Pew poll found a remarkable rise in class consciousness in the last few years. The percentage of people identifying as “lower class” or “lower middle class” has increased from 25 percent to 32 percent and to an astonishing 40 percent among young people. Listening in at a house meeting of working-class people this summer in Canton, Ohio, the majority of whom were not activists, I was struck again by the level of clarity people have about their predicament and what needs to be done: an awareness that things won’t turn around until there is a strategy for creating good jobs; a deep understanding that the elite in the country have abandoned them; and a pervasive sense that if centrist Democrats aren’t acknowledging the diminished opportunities the attendees encounter, the Republicans are mostly unhinged and dangerous. The participants posed a serious question to each other: Should they continue to put energy into the hard work of trying to keep their individual families afloat, or is it time to invest more deeply in collective action? Leaving that room, I was struck by how much appetite there is for an economic-justice movement that is sober, dogged, grounded, bold, and practical at the same time. If we don’t have the imagination to build it, shame on us.

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