What Do We Want? A New Economy

Since the colossal crash of our nation’s financial system three years ago, progressive and left social movement groups have been trying to legitimize a set of ideas around bottom-up democracy and a new, morally-grounded, equitable and sustainable economy. Related proposals have aimed to rein in corporate power and make government more responsive to the needs of workers and communities. The resulting showdowns, accountability sessions, negotiations to provide foreclosure relief and legislative battles for financial reform have yielded some impressive results. Still, in spite of Wall Street’s obvious malfeasance, the manifest failures of corporate-conservative policies and the election of a one-time community organizer with a highly-motivating campaign, dominant corporate-conservative narratives about the economy and the role of government have been difficult to topple. These past three years, as right-wing opposition coalesced around a shared hatred of President Obama, legislative bodies at the state and national levels have been gripped by stalemate. Instead of looking for ways to stimulate the economy, create jobs and promote sustainability, Congress proposes cuts in the social safety-net while large numbers of its members embrace rhetoric that scapegoats poor people, immigrants and public sector workers for our nation's financial woes.

Then along came Occupy Wall Street (aka the Occupy Together movement, or OT), which quickly spread to cities across the country, while capturing the imaginations of activists around the globe. If nothing else happens, the OT movement already has achieved a great victory: it has shifted the national discourse away from austerity and toward the conversations we need to have about economic democracy. Two months ago we were stuck in the Right’s narrative about reducing deficits, which, not unexpectedly, was embraced by leaders in both parties. Now we are talking about jobs, inequality and corporate power. This opens up opportunities for progressives in community, faith and labor sectors who have been trying for years to gain traction on these issues.

The OT movement gives new urgency to ongoing actions, such as those organized by the New Bottom Line and it’s member organizations. Community, labor and faith-based groups around the nation are insisting that Wall Street pay for the mess it has made, while also pushing for foreclosure relief and other ways of helping people say in their homes, advocating for fair taxes, including a tax on risking financial transactions, and getting real bank reform back onto the agenda. All of this action is great, and absolutely necessary. At the same time, the OT movement challenges us to get clearer about the fundamental political and economic changes we are aiming for. What does all of this action add up to?

While the OT movement is not all that interested in clarifying a set of demands in the sense that we usually understand them, it has raised the need for bolder articulation of what we believe in and the kind of society we are fighting for. And this is perhaps the opportunity of the moment that we cannot afford to pass up. For over 40 years, social change groups haven’t had a lot of clarity about their systemic-level goals for fundamental structural change. The general strategy for progressive groups has been to run campaigns around short-term to medium-term winnable issues. Unions have had a similar approach, focusing on the bread and butter issues that their members understand immediately and care about, and, in the process, perhaps missing opportunities to engage their members in more meaningful dialog about deeper beliefs.

Of course, this does not mean that the OT movement is amenable to the level of intentionality that we are talking about. That’s okay. Our interest is in helping the ‘more established’ (and in the case of New Bottom Line, relatively new) networks of community, labor and faith groups develop strategy for taking advantage of the moment while building for the long haul.

One way of restating the "what are our demands" question, then, is to clarify what kinds of social transformation we are aiming for. We think the answer lies in the realm of racial justice and economic democracy. One way of saying this is, our deeper ‘demands,’ have to do with transforming our political economy. This goes way beyond advocating for specific policy changes. At the same time, it helps orient our policy (and budget) fights toward bigger goals around building a new economy.

The struggle for a new economy raises questions about multiple stakeholders, with community at the center. Rolled into this are fundamental questions about the role of private capital, the role of government as well as the role of civil society.  For example, we want more community access to capital, through community banks, through local initiatives that direct investments toward addressing community needs, and through businesses that invest in and care about our communities. At the same time, a lot of our actions are focused on larger institutions, such as big banks and federal agencies whose decisions affect local, national and even global economic conditions. Each of these levels must be taken into account, and, they exist in tension with one another.  Here are things about the roles of private, public and civil society to keep in mind as we work toward economic transformation:

• Bottom-up approaches. We want to be able to control the institutions that affect our lives. For that to happen, a lot of those institutions have to have local entry-points; this should be true whether a service is being provided privately or publicly.

At the same time, we cannot grow a strong national economy from the bottom up only. We have to be able to deal with the power of (global) corporations and national governments, and to harness federal and state government powers to redirect resources toward supporting local initiatives. These other components of a new economy are critical. Without them, local projects will have trouble transcending the hostile environment that has prevailed in our cities and states for over 40 years.

• Role of Government. As we support local initiatives, we need to lift up the critical role of government in helping to seed more alternatives, to provide new legal frameworks, security and back-up so that these initiatives can expand and scale up. We know that most arenas of government have been captured by corporate and Wall Street interests, that we now have a ‘Winner Take All’ political economy. This reality animates many of our mobilizations against Wall Street. We need to have a clearer and more consistent narrative about whose interests government should serve, and how it should start supporting more participatory, bottom-up approaches to economic development and the provision of the vital services that we all need in order to thrive (health, housing, education, public safety, etc.) In the long run, sustaining participatory and democratic action in our communities will require a transformation of government’s relation to society in general and economics in particular.

• Racial justice and the new economy. This is key. Our aim is to bring a racial justice analysis into the economic justice analysis — not as an ‘add-on,’ and not just in terms of pointing out disparities in banking, but as a fundamental way of addressing the intersectionality of racial and economic oppression; how racism is woven into economic structures and practices, and how trying to change economic practices without addressing racism is a losing strategy. We also want to point groups toward concrete opportunities to advance racial justice in their campaigns.

Here are a couple of examples: Health and transportation. Racial disparities won’t be addressed by local initiatives unless this is built in as an explicit goal. In Minnesota, ISAIAH and its allies are making sure that state agencies are actively promoting transportation equity (addressing minority communities’ transportation needs is a priority concern for all state policies). A similar thing is happening around addressing racial disparities in health outcomes. Housing is another area that needs targeting: measures to reduce predatory lending must target the racialization of lending practices. The social nature of housing needs to be stressed. Criminal justice reform is another prime example of a community issue that disproportionately affects communities of color.

Cross-race solidarity will be critical in the struggle for new economy. It won’t happen if we don’t explicitly address racism, and, in the process, help the white constituencies that are part of the 99% understand how their wellbeing is linked with racial equity. This is also a cautionary note for Occupy Together. It does not necessarily rise to the top of the concerns or the experiments in creating prefigurative social and political arrangements, unless it is intentionally built-in. And, as Bill Fletcher points out in a recent interview, all of our groups must beware of right-wing populists who play up conspiracy theories and racial prejudice. Any action that draws attention to inequality and the big banks tends to attract these kinds of populists. It is critical for our movements that be are clear in our rejection of these kinds of analyses about what ails our political economy.