Getting out of this Mess by Building support for Economic and Social Justice
The election was terrible and means huge setback in the things we who support social and economic justice care about. For the climate it may mean the difference between the possibility of building a sustainable future and getting to the changes too late to avoid catastrophe. The current period is likely to give a major stress test to our constitutional and electoral systems, and those systems might not survive the next years intact.
But it is also possible that with a huge setback to the politics of the neo-liberal consensus under which we have been living for the past 50 years, there is an opening for more progressive alternatives to gain more traction than we have dreamed possible in recent decades. One of my favorite expressions is “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will,” The great Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci argued that it is important to take a sober and realistic look around and understand the situation you are in, to not sugar coat it or minimize its dangers. And at the same time, he argued, it was important to always reevaluate any situation for the opportunities it opens up.
Gramsci also argues that an important part of politics is the politics of meaning. You move your political agenda forward by making the world make sense in ways that build support for your view from the people who will enable you to do the practical things you want to do. His most famous example was the way the Catholic Church in Italy helped the economic elite. The church asked people to be meek and expect rewards in an afterlife. This way of understanding their place in the world made the work of those wishing to organize the Italian working class to resist exploitation difficult. The idea that good people are meek became common sense. And so a big part of the organizing on the left had to be helping people to understand the world in a different way, and to create a new commons sense, and therefore, on a political level to create a path to what he called a counterhegemonic worldview. Hegemony is the building of power through creating systems of common sense which empower a dominating agenda. Counterhegemony means building systems of meaning that help drive efforts to challenge political domination.
The horrendous moment we are in provides openings for us to build now forms of common sense, and therefore to build new forms of political counterhegemony.
Fall of Cosmopolitan Capitalism
This election blew a hole through one of the dominant forms of commons sense in US political culture: that a society based on free-market capitalism can be friendly to people from all races, genders and sexual orientations, and that we can have a fair and just society by being both mildly multiculturalist and capitalist.
This cosmopolitan capitalist view has taken a beating since the crash of 2008. Cosmopolitan capitalists favor the IMF, World Bank, and Wall Street, as well as transnational trade deals, such as the TPP and NAFTA that give huge amounts of power to multinational corporations.
Cosmopolitan capitalists claim that everyone is welcome; gay rights, feminism, and anti-racism are fine; as long as those things mean that everyone is welcome to compete in the capitalist markets. The rich will be asked to provide for a social safety net, and progress toward social justice can be made, but the power of multinational capital will not be challenged in any serious way. Cosmopolitan capitalists open space for social justice, but not economic justice.
The parts of capitalism that supported that view have been running up against some walls in terms of public support since the crash of 2008. At that time the sheer devastation that the crash caused in people’s lives made them take stock and wonder if the system was meeting their needs. And watching as the system aided the 1%, while allowing the rest of us to lose homes and see our communities devastated, was an important kick to that dominant commonsense.
That situation made a lie out of the claim made by cosmopolitan capitalists that if we focus on challenging discrimination in our social systems, while simultaneously enabling transnational capitalism to have its way most of the time, we will all do fine.
Cosmopolitan capitalism didn’t just take a beating in the US. We can see the Arab spring as a revolt against the power of dictatorships in the Middle East, but also as a revolt against an economic system that was not delivering a viable future for millions of young people. And as those revolts were squashed, the only response that seemed to have legs was a retreat into forms of fundamentalism that offered that least the possibility of cultural pride and a sense of belonging.
In Europe there has been a deep undermining of support for the mainstream social-democratic and moderate conservative political parties which have largely done the bidding of the transnational elites. Many people have abandoned those parties and begun to vote for newer left-wing alternatives, such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and Die Like in Germany. Watching the banks and European Union bring Greece to its knees because of its inability to pay debts that were taken out by the Greek elites at the behest of transnational banks helped many Europeans see that their system was rigged against them. While many have begun to support the parties of the left, others have moved to support the claims to community and belonging offered by the nativist parties.
The part of capital that holds this cosmopolitan view can be forward looking, rational, multicultural, liberal, supportive of the rule of law, and open to forms of regulation that stabilize the system. And sometimes it is willing to grant concessions to the working class. They have also tended to be open to the possibility of moving from a fossil fuel based capitalism to a green technology based system.
The New Deal consensus in the US was built upon an accord between the working class and capitalists according to which if the working class got enough financial wellbeing and stability, the capitalist could continue to profit from their labor. In recent years those cosmopolitan capitalist led coalitions have largely lost their ability to win elections in part because those at the top of these economic and political systems got too greedy and didn't share enough with the rest of us to make us like them. They have been caught in the contradiction of trying to build popular support at a time when their funders in finance capital have insisted on a brutal economic squeezing of the working class.
Another way of understanding the inability of cosmopolitan capitalism to maintain its hegemony is that it was out organized by the more right wing side of the capitalist ruling class: the one that says there is never enough for the wealthy, and damn the New Deal Accord. That fraction of capital has had a different strategy for building support for an economic system that no one but the 1% would vote for if they really understood what was at stake and if they had other options.
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Rise of Nativist Capitalism
The alternative hegemonic worldview, nativist capitalism, which won this election, has been supported by: a number of unbelievably well-funded think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation; lobbying groups such as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council); funders such as the Koch brothers; and multinationals such as Exxon-Mobil.
Together these forces have gerrymandered congressional districts, spent millions sowing doubt about climate change, worked hard to disenfranchise people who were likely to vote against them (through mechanisms such as mass incarceration and voter identification laws); have worked hard to undermine regulations that force companies to do things in ways that serve the public interest; fought to privatize everything from public education to our water, to Medicare and Social Security, and they have made sure that tax system favored the 1%.
They built public support for this set of policies that are in the interest of very few people by building a common sense based on racism, nativism, and sexism. The coalition that won this election got a lot of its energy from a sense of aggrieved entitlement on the part of white Americans who have felt displaced. Many white Americans have been taught a version of US history and a vison of US culture that says that they are the normal regular Americans, who deserve material comfort and security.
A lot of Trump voters come from rural towns that have been devastated by the loss of family farms in the 1980s, by the loss of manufacturing jobs, and by the foreclosure crisis. And also with those losses comes a cultural loss, and it became easy to blame that loss of a sense of community, stability and a future, on the multiculturalism that has risen in this past period. That politics of blame and resentment was fueled by millions of dollars invested in helping people see the world that way.
This fraction of capital doesn't offer a functioning welfare state to get support from large numbers of people. Instead it gains support by feeding people’s fears and resentments
Economic and Social Justice: a Counterhegemonic Common Sense
Cosmopolitan capitalism doesn't speak to a lot of us because we know its claims to a free market capitalism that can include us all is a lie. It might be possible for a new labor-capital accord to be built that gives enough to the working class to make it vote for capital. But right now those holding the reins of power are not offering enough to make that offer believable. Our job needs to be to fight for economic and social justice.
And a part of that fight has to involve developing and propagating our alternative visions.
Now is not a time for us to retreat or to moderate. Rather it is a time to move forward and fill the void left by the implosion of the cosmopolitan capitalists and capture the very real sense of grievance and displacement that people feel at the present moment. We know from Bernie Sanders’ run for president that our ideas have much longer legs in the US than most of us ever dreamed imaginable.
Many people in this country resonate to the idea that the system is rigged and that the rich are getting rich off of our hard work. We need to embrace that view, because it is true, and because it will help us build support for the policies and projects we support.
We need to put out our analysis that there is enough in this world for everyone to live happy and comfortable lives; that a sustainable economy is possible and can work for everyone; that we need to take the reins of power from the 1% and that we need to invest in our communities.
People are trained into the belief that government is supposed to serve their needs without their participation in helping government function well by voting thoughtfully and fighting to hold elected officials accountable. Instead many people sit back and expect their needs to be met and rant against the system if it doesn’t meet their needs. We need to engage in practices that develop people’s belief that by working together we build the social fabric. When we talk together about issues and try to understand them we can see that solutions to our social problems are at hand, but that they require concerted collaborative work to achieve.
Among the thing we need to do to build this new common sense are:
- Dialoguing with people who see the world differently from ourselves about how the world works, what interests are at play, and how best to get our needs met.
- Propagating ways of understanding the economy that place blame on the 1% and hold out the possibility of a world where we can all have what we need.
- Challenging the white supremacist ideology that says that only white people deserve to live well.
- Challenging the sexist ideology that say that women’ liberation is to blame for people's loss of a sense of community.
- Challenging the rhetoric that blames our problems on Muslims or immigrants.
- Making clear the economic interests and cynicism of the nativist capitalists while also offering a critique of the cosmopolitan capitalists.
- Fighting for things like the $15 minimum wage at the state level to show people what it looks like when we engage in collective action; who the forces are that we’re up against; and the good that comes from challenging the 1%.
- Promoting alternative media that make the world make sense from our perspectives.
When we build power we also build community. Those communities need to have a deep and compelling vision of the world and of our way forward. This is a time that will take all of our efforts, and a lot of vision, and a lot of explaining.