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Analysis Economic Justice Global Peace & Collaboration Organizing Social Justice

Watch: Forum on Palestine, 2021 Unity Uprising, and Beyond

In our latest monthly forum, Danya from the U.S. Palestinian Community Network joined Voices for New Democracy to discuss political developments in Palestine and recent uprisings throughout the occupied territories. Exploring the history of Zionism, Palestinian activism and resistance, and ongoing developments in the region, the conversation offers an important overview of the status quo in Palestine and possibilities for political change.

Watch the full forum below.

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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Environmental Justice Organizing Social Justice

Watch: Voices for New Democracy Forum With The Poor People’s Campaign

In our latest monthly political forum, Roz Pelles and Lucy Lewis from The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival joined Voices for New Democracy to discuss the important work of the campaign and its strategy of weaving together diverse struggles that center impacted communities.

The Poor People’s Campaign draws on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organizing and the Civil Rights Movement to bring the fight against poverty back into the national conversation through grassroots organizing in communities across the country and nonviolent direct action with their diverse coalition.

In the forum, Roz Pelles discusses the outlook and strategies of the movement, highlighting the leadership by directly impacted individuals and the ongoing work of bringing together diverse social, political, economic, and environmental movements to build a unified voice demanding common goals. She also discusses the Campaign’s work of submitting a “moral budget” to Congress, highlighting priorities for investment in family care and community support, which may have influenced the recent Congressional infrastructure bills that would deliver historic investments in these areas.

Watch the full forum below.

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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Organizing Social Justice

“A Season of Action”: Women at Center of Fight to Protect Voting Rights Step Up to Save Democracy

| Roz Pelles & Dr. Liz Theoharis |

This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine.

On Monday, July 19, nearly 100 women were arrested with the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. while protesting the filibuster and demanding full voting rights and living wages. These women—a multiracial group of leaders from major labor unions, religious denominations, national organizations and grassroots communities that represent millions of people—demanded action from Congress and the president by August 6, the anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

The attack on democracy currently playing out in D.C. and in state legislatures like Texas is the worst we have seen since Reconstruction. Since January, there has been a wave of voter suppression laws across the country—while in the Senate, members of both parties continue to use the filibuster to block the political will of the majority of Americans. At the center of this crisis are poor women, especially poor women of color, who are facing increasingly unlivable conditions, none of which will change without a democracy that works for them.

History has circled back in the most wicked of ways, forcing a new generation of women to step into the breach to save this democracy. 173 years ago, on July 19, 1848, hundreds came together in Seneca Falls, New York, to denounce the outrage of second-class citizenship for women. Seneca Falls is often remembered for the issue of suffrage. At the time, though, it was too radical for some. But others including leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who attended the convention, urged the women to make voting rights a key priority, knowing that their struggle was connected to the fight for what W.E.B. Du Bois would later call “abolition democracy.” 

Indeed, the demands in Seneca Falls largely echoed the unheralded efforts of Black women stretching back decades, and their rising discontent under the leadership of women like Sojourner Truth. Three years after Seneca Falls, at a women’s convention in Akron, Ohio, Truth famously said:

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again.”

Take Action

On Monday, we carried the spirit of all of these women into the streets of D.C. We reminded the nation that unshackling our democracy from voter suppression and procedural rules like the filibuster is inextricably linked to the work of building a nation where every person’s needs are met. At this critical crossroads, we cannot let up on the demand for racial and economic justice, including the raising of the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, which would immediately lift the pay of 32 million people, disproportionately poor women of color. 

That is why on Monday we committed ourselves not just to one day, but a season of action. Next week we will bring the fight to state legislators, with actions in dozens of states, including a Selma-inspired three-day march to the Texas legislature in Austin.

The following Monday, on August 2, we will converge again en masse in D.C., fueled by a growing movement of women and others who are willing to move beyond calls for quiet conversation and compromise, and into bold action.

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Analysis Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Is a Progressive Majority in Texas Possible?

| Matt Perrenod |

Democrats have been talking about flipping Texas for at least a decade.  It’s not hard to understand why.  Nearly 40% of Texas residents identify as Hispanic, according to the 2020 Census.  An additional 20% identify themselves as African-American, Asian-American and other non-whites, meaning that only slightly more than 40% of the state’s residents identify as non-Hispanic white, and that number is shrinking as a percentage of the whole.  

Further, the state is large, with a population and electoral strength nearly equal to Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona combined.  If Texas were to become electorally competitive statewide, it would completely change the electoral calculus in the U.S. as a whole.  And both Dems and progressives have noticed, giving the state increasing attention over the last few years.  They have, nevertheless, been disappointed: the GOP continues to hold every statewide office, including both U.S. Senators, and dominate both the Congressional delegation and both houses of the state legislature, with no erosion in 2020.  Biden did narrow Trump’s margin in the Presidential race, but still lost by nearly 6%.

With this in mind, I spoke with Mike Siegel, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress from Texas’ 10th Congressional district in both 2018 and 2020. Mike is an attorney and longtime progressive activist in the Austin area.  Mike’s campaigns were strongly progressive in content and tone, and he surprised many when in 2018 he came within 4% of beating a well-financed GOP incumbent in 2018 in a Republican-leaning district stretching from east Austin to the western fringes of Houston.

With more support and considerably stronger fundraising in 2020, he actually fared slightly less well in 2020, reflecting a statewide pattern.  “We raised a lot more money in 2020, and probably 80% of that went to polling and media,” he says.  “I think we need to get a chunk of that fundraising into grassroots organizing.”

In 2021, Mike and Julie Oliver, another progressive Congressional candidate who outperformed expectations in 2018 and 2020, have created a new organization called Ground Game Texas, with an aim “to organize and mobilize voters community-by-community, collaborating with partners on the ground to meet voters at their doors, hear their concerns, and highlight popular issues that are on the ballot.”

“Obviously I think they’re important, but electoral candidacies are a limited form,” Siegel says.  “They’re about a specific candidate, in a specific race, and specific location.  And to the extent ordinary people have bandwidth for politics, they may be thinking more about Joe Biden versus Donald Trump than about the local race… If we’re going to make real progress, we need a long-term horizon.”

Ground Game Texas is meant to address that, drawing on the lessons in places like Arizona and Georgia, and applying them to the Texas context.

“The folks who successfully fought to roll back SB 1070 (the Arizona anti-immigration laws enacted in 2010) kept working,” Siegel says.  “Now Arizona has two Democratic Senators.”  The New Georgia Project went door to door for ACA (Obamacare).  Organizing for health care led to voter registration, which led to fighting for voter rights, which led finally to some big wins.  If the goal is to build a progressive Texas, we can’t rely on shortcuts.  But Texas may be even tougher: “We need twenty Stacey Abrams.  We’re big, and we’re diverse.”

Siegel believes strongly that a sustained conversation around key issues is central to this long-term thinking.  To this end, Ground Game Texas will put money and organization behind a set of issues they characterize as “Workers, Wages & Weed.”

“These are wedge issues that work in our favor,” Siegel says.  “And in Texas, a key tactic is to put these issues on city ballots throughout the state, to excite progressive voters and stimulate political conversation, and address the disconnect between Democratic policies (which are often popular), and the Democratic brand (often seen as disconnected from popular concerns).”

Ground Game Texas hopes to promote progressive causes and candidacies throughout several electoral cycles by providing campaign expertise and funding to a combination of candidacies and ballot issues, sustaining an ongoing conversation among voters that will gradually swell to a progressive majority that matches Texas’ perceived potential.

One issue is how to constantly be advancing electoral work that galvanizes voter interest and turnout. “Safe seats are a problem,” Siegel says.  “Turnout is reduced, even in strongly progressive communities, when there’s not a closely-contested race.  So we’re looking to ballot issues as a key tactic.”

Citizen-initiated ballot issues are not allowed statewide in Texas, nor at the county level.  Citizens can petition for ballot measures at the municipal level, and Ground Game Texas hopes to promote these all over the state.

“You could put an initiative on the ballot to require a living wage in city contracts, for example,” Siegel says.  “Or you could limit enforcement of marijuana laws for possession of small amounts.  These are progressive ideas that majorities support.” 

Siegel hopes to take the fundraising capacity demonstrated in progressive candidacies and direct that toward grassroots organizing.  He notes that there is already strong grassroots organization in some parts of the state, citing as an example the Texas Organizing Project, which is active in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.  In those cases, he says, Ground Game Texas can provide tactical support, including funding and legal help.  Progressives are less well organized in many other parts of the state, however.

“For example, there is Grand Prairie, outside of Dallas,” he says.  “It has over 100,000 people, and is majority Hispanic, but lacks political organization.”  He described how a city that leans Democratic continued to be dominated by white conservative Republicans.  “We were able to help two progressive people of color win city council elections for the first time.  And you’ve got places like Grand Prairie all over the state.”  

Again, Siegel emphasizes a prolonged effort.  “It would have been nice if one exciting candidacy could flip the state,” he says, referring to Beto O’Rourke’s unexpectedly strong showing against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.  “But that’s not how it’s going to happen.  To be real, we need to be thinking about 2028.”

Ground Game Texas starts with $1 million, and a goal of raising another $2 million this year, and funding organizers to knock on a million doors throughout the state. You can find them at www.groundgametexas.org.

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Analysis Organizing Social Justice

Truth & Reconciliation in Greensboro

| Nelson & Joyce Johnson |

SOME UNDERGIRDING VALUES, ASSUMPTIONS AND PROCESSES RELATED TO FORGING A NORTH CAROLINA TRUTH, JUSTICE AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION (TJRC)

  1. Introduction and Sketch of the Vision and Basic Plan

Every significant social undertaking usually has unstated values, assumptions and strategic objectives related to that undertaking.  In this document we will sketch out some of those values, assumptions and strategic objectives as we currently see them for exploration and further refinement.  This is a vital step as we strive to build on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) initiative to establish a North Carolina Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). You will notice that we have added the word “justice” to this emerging North Carolina statewide process. 

Our country is trapped in a web of false or terribly distorted and contradictory historical narratives. Against this background, there is a growing consciousness of the need for some kind of truth seeking and justice making process in our nation.  In fact, there has been over fifty (50) calls for and/or initiatives launched in recent years for truth processes.  These include Rep. Barber Lee’s call for Congress to create a Federal Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJR).  Also, it is becoming increasingly clear that the nation cannot long endure without a broader and more truthful understanding of its history and a wiliness to both own and creatively engage that history so as to heal the wounds and repair the wrongs of our yesterdays.  This is necessary if we are to have better tomorrows.  In a real sense, nothing less than our personal futures and the future of the entire nation is at stake. 

The NC-TJRC is envisioned as an ultra-inclusive process. That is, we want to reach a significant slice of the racial, economic, gender, rural, urban and ideological diversities within our state.  While all the diversities are included, there will be a preference for the most marginalized, abused, and neglected, including an emphasis on undervalued and underpaid workers.  

The rationale of working with all of these diversities is to touch the connective tissue of the common humanity in each of these components of our state’s population.   In some religious traditions this is understood as touching the image of God in each person. This view is, understandably, not shared by everyone.  Another way of capturing the same point is to raise the question: Can people (humans) change?  If the answer is affirmative, the follow-up question is:  What are the conditions conducive to changing in positive ways?  And, a related question is: What is the potential of creating those conditions on a scale sufficient to bring about a meaningful measure of positive moral/social/economic transformation? 

In this paper, we will outline significant elements of a process and name several key steps necessary to put the vision of a NC- TJRC in play.  Before we go further, however, we want to express our sincere gratitude for all people within the family and close allies, scattered across the nation for your support of the long, difficult struggle for a measure of justice in Greensboro, including the process that brought into being the nation’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 

  1. The Objective Conditions Are Ripe and Crying Out for Change

It is difficult to see how the nation can continue in its current mode and direction without descending deeper into more devastating and violent division and conflict.  So, the more focused question is not whether conditions are ripe for change, as we are already changing, but rather, what kind of change. The George Floyd murder and the resultant explosion of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the 2020 elections and the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s capital, coupled with waves of state level voter suppressions laws designed to radically reduce the Black/Brown vote all speak to the objective conditions encasing and weakening our fragile and flawed democratic republic.  These conditions and the great wealth-inequalities leave the nation very unstable and, perhaps, more divided than it has been since the Civil War period. 

Given the current polarization and evolving conditions, again, the question is not whether the objective conditions are ripe for change but rather in what direction the nation change will.  We believe, under the current conditions, that a high quality Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) in one mid-sized, southern state (10 million people) can have significant impact on the character and quality of national change going forward. It is our hope that we can contribute to a genuinely transformative national “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation” momentum by modeling such a genuine TJRC process in North Carolina.

  1. The NC-TJRC Must Cultivate a Deep, Respectful Atmosphere of Mutual Listening, Mutual Speaking, and Mutual Benefits

Cultivating an atmosphere of deep, respectful listening and speaking will require a good bit of advance, patient, one on one and small group work (initially within groups that roughly share essentially the same ideological tendencies).  One on one and small group discussions will help to establish the essential ground-work (a particular form of training) for growth into deeper discussions and greater unity between the broad diversities of peoples in the state.  The point here is to avoid, early in the process, heated arguments between different social/economic/gender and racial groups that cause the emphasis to shift from understanding each other to winning the argument.  

Also, if the NC-TJRC process is to work, we cannot over emphasize that there must be mutual benefits for all parties, especially black and brown people, the poor in general, with an emphasis on poor whites. Tragically, so many white people are captive of the ideology of white supremacy and who tend to see benefits for black and brown people as opposed to their interest.   Therefore, we must avoid the zero sum win/lose framework that is built into our current national and cultural.

Even those who “lose” financially (the rich) will win in other ways; we know it is not likely that the majority of the upper economic class will agree with this perspective.  However, disagreement with this perspective, does not make it untrue.  After all, what does it ultimately profit a few people to gain a lot of wealth (stuff and things) but lose the nation and what’s left of one’s humanity, i.e. living outside of a beloved framework (and in fear of being exposed and becoming a target).  The details of how to structure these conversations will vary, but all will require deep, mutual, respectful speaking and listening with mutual benefits promised for all.  

  1. We Must Forge a Sufficient Body of Agreed upon Historical Truths (Community Truths) That Contributed to the Accumulated Historical Wrongs and the Currently Lived Confusion and Injustices

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Given our national history, there will necessarily be conflicting narratives of hardships, injuries, wrongs, who to blame, etc.   A whole world of misinformation, disinformation, false information, confusing information and painful information will flow from these discussions.  Such discussions can be both gut-wrenching but are also absolutely necessary.  Truth is often bitter.  These discussions will not only reveal unspoken truths, but will also be partly therapeutic as the emotional trauma is deeper and more enduring than most of us realize.  Engaging these discussions across the state will require patience, tolerance and persistence.   This will be an extended exercise in deep listening and respectful speaking that will involve sorting out, reframing, re-contextualizing, forgiving and forging alternative narratives.

In the course of these discussions, the injuries, damage, and pain will become clearer.   Although, we are in a period Dr. King characterized as the “fierce urgency of now” yet, we cannot rush the process. We must take the time necessary.  This is how people grow into the process and thereby help to forge a body of acknowledged “community truths.”  We envision a North Carolina Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) of 11-15 people. We will strive to attract people with integrity and sensitivity.  We envision that the commissioners will bring professional gifts and expertise with a range of life experiences. 

Further, most of the commissioners will be from North Carolina, with no more than three from outside of North Carolina.    Ideally, there will be at least one commissioner from each of the geographic sites in the state. The TJRC will schedule public hearings across the state that will provide an opportunity for Commissioners to hear and respectfully pose inviting questions to those testifying, creating space for elaboration at the public hearings.

  1. The Limitations of TJR Processes & What It Takes to Repair Historical Wrongs

It must be acknowledged that all historical wrongs cannot be corrected, even with a good NC-TJRC or a goof national TJRC.   However, this should never become a reason for not doing the best we can. The “best we can” has the possibility of helping to bend the moral arc and hopefully contribute to setting our state and nation on a different course.  

Over the years, we in Greensboro have played a significant part in helping to build a budding movement infrastructure in North Carolina.  It will take ramping up and connecting the range of social justice organizing work already being done in the state, as in the Fight for 15, the Poor People’s Campaign, plus local and state police, environmental, educational, housing equity, and other initiatives seeking justice. We are challenged, together with others, to help these struggles “walk towards each other”.   Both quality and size of these connected struggles cause them to become transformative.  Hopefully the growth of this trend in North Carolina will inspire others across the nation to intensify forging a range of positive, creative initiatives of which TRJC (s) is one component, but an essential component.  

All of the elaboration in the previous paragraphs is to say, we have no illusions that a state or national TJRC will alone change the direction of the nation.  At the same time, we believe that a greater measure of shared truth (and love) is necessary to counter the rapidly growing trend of falsehood, confusion, manipulation, fear and division resulting in a growing trend towards greater force and violence.  That is why we are happy to partner with the Poor People Campaigns (PPC), and we will be reaching out to religious, civic, labor and neighborhood organization as well as youth/student groups, street groups (that some call gangs) and others who agree with our declaration of intent; our hope is to enlist them in the NC-TJRC process.  For us, this is a major initiative that we likely would not be undertaking except for the work in Greensboro, especially the labor movement and the Greensboro TRC-related work with which so many in the Family have been a part. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that white supremacy is burned deep into the culture of the United States. In this context, we join with the spirit of Phil [Thompson]’s paper on Economic Democracy which states

Going back to Abraham Lincoln, his greatest worry on the heels of the Civil War was that the majority of white citizens did not want to be part of the same community and polity, and certainly not put on an equal footing with black people.  This is still the main alienation in US society.  Economic inequality and government unaccountability, in the eyes of many whites, are the result of unfair advantages handed out to people of color. The pathway to changing the economy and government is to unite white Americans, but unity necessitates overcoming this racial resentment which is so strong that it threatens the foundation of the democracy…

The starting point for building unity across race, in our view, is changing white America’s image of black people as wanting to take material things away from white people.  Black, and other people of color, need to advocate a broadly appealing economic platform to dispute that image.  A forward-looking economic platform could meet white workers where they currently are and help move them away from a zero-sum calculation that they have nothing material to gain by uniting with people of color. But this is only a first step; an economic platform will not fully remove the anxiety many whites feel about no longer being a demographic majority with the ability to dominate society.

The “white anxiety” of which Phil speaks will be partly engaged by a NC-TJRC process that involves “deep listening and speaking” in an authentic truth process. 

  1. The Projected Issue Focus Areas and Geographical Focus Areas  

The TJRC’s Declaration of Intent lists six areas for exploration. They are:

  • The historical and current abuse of police powers and judicial processes.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to financial security and wealth creation.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to adequate housing.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to quality physical and mental healthcare.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to voting and full participation in the democratic process.
  • The disparate impact of climate change and other ecological factors on people of color and the poor. 

These focus areas might change based on further exploration and discussion with local geographical areas around the state.  The State of North Carolina is divided into three broad regions:

  • The Coastal Plains:  This is the eastern part of the state.  It was and remains the major farming area in the state.  The land is rich and flat. This is the region where the large slave holding plantations existed.  For years before the Civil War and for some 75 years after the Civil war the large plantation and former slave owners ruled the state government. This is also the area (the NC Black Belt) where the largest percentage of black people in the state still live
  • The Piedmont Region:  This is the middle part of the state going from east to west.   This region is where the major urban areas of the state are located.  These urban areas include Raleigh, the state’s capital and the second largest city in the state; Charlotte, the largest city in the state, Greensboro the third largest city in the state, Durham the fourth largest city in the state, Winston-Salem, the fifth largest city in the state. The largest universities and colleges are also located in the Piedmont Region. These cities grew up during the industrial period.  Textiles, furniture, and paper processing plants were some of the major industries that grew up in this area. Many of these industries, particularly the textiles, have moved to foreign countries in recent years.
  • The Mountain Region:  This is the western most part of the state.  It is primarily a mountain range. It is the poorest of the three regions. It is made up of small towns and villages with small farms.  People in the region rely on industries linked to natural resources of the region.  These include farming, mining, forestry, manufacturing and tourism. Asheville is the largest city in the western region. The ethnic makeup of the mountain region is 89.9% white; 9% Latino (Hispanic); and less than 1% Black (African-American). 

Our current plan calls for identifying two sites in each of the state’s three regions.  We will select the sites based on at least four criteria:

  • The desire of a sufficient core of diverse leadership, especially grassroots leadership, to sponsor and be part of a statewide TJRC process; 
  • Commitment of local leaders to help seek financial and human resources to undertake the project; 
  • Defining one of the six issue focus areas (listed in the Declaration) or identifying a different focus area that those committed to the NC-TJRC process are willing to assume as their geographic area of focus.
  • A good fit into the projected rural/urban divide, the black/white indigenous divide and of course a good fit into the regional divides. 

The geographical sites to be chosen should reflect a good cross-section of the North Carolina population.  If our resources allow and, if there is a groundswell of support to do so, we will expand from six to no more than twelve (12) geographical sites, i.e. up to four (4) sites in each of the state’s three geographical regions. As the NC-TJRC matures, these sites will be increasingly connected, effectively reflecting a statewide process.  

  1. Raising the Money and Putting Together the Team
  • Fund Raising: We believe it will take about $8 to $10 million dollars over the life of the project that we project will take about four (4) years.  We have already raised over $1 million.  We have been working with others to forge an effective fundraising team that is working hard to raise the necessary funds.  Once the NC-TJRC is officially and publicly launched, we believe there will be greater interest and more funds made available.   
  • The Staff:  Initially, (by September) we plan to have new full-time staff of seven people. Within six months that staff will likely increase to 12 people.  Also, we anticipate both college interns and full time volunteers being recruited for this work. If necessary and, if the funding allows, we may employ several part-time people.  We will push, together with others, to organize, organize, and organize with on the ground training, training and more training. We are putting special emphasis on quickly growing a top-notch communication machine (capacity) as this will be essential to growing and holding the expanding process together.   
  • The Kitchen Cabinet:  We have put together a diverse Kitchen Cabinet of 14 people that we hope to consult with on a regular basis (as needed).
  • The National Advisory Committee:  We project a national advisory committee of about forty (40) people that will meet virtually or in person twice a year.  We are projecting that twenty-five (25) of its members will be from North Carolina and fifteen (15) from outside of North Carolina.  All of the members will be available for consultation between its formal meetings, as needed. 
  1. Building from the “Bottom Up” and from “the Center Out”

Truth and Justices processes cannot and will not work if they are not deeply rooted in the grassroots, i.e. the people most damaged and wounded, the people most neglected and devalued.    This is one of the lessons learned from South Africa.  The South African TRC was not a failure, but it was also not a glowing success.  It probably did prevent a South African Civil War; that in itself was significant.   As we have learned from those who helped to forge the South African TRC process, there were three very interrelated, overlapping significant weaknesses.

  • First, according to those who were active in the process, it did not adequately reach out into local areas where the lion’s share of the pain and suffering was experienced by black people.  Stated differently, it was too centralized and did not reach deeply or broadly or prolonged enough into parts of the population that suffered the most. We have put a major emphasis on avoiding that mistake.  That’s what we mean by building from the bottom up and the center out.  The center is not the perspective of rich white men. The anchoring perspective is rooted in the people most the injured, abused, devalued and harmed. 
  • Second, a significant part of the white South African population did not adequately or sincerely engage in or commit to the TRC process.  This is where we think the depth of white supremacy comes into play.  Our best understanding is that white South Africans engaged in the process in a limited and pragmatic way. It probably was more about participating with a view of “getting it behind us” and with little fundamental change. The South African process seems to have done little to cause white South Africans to see deeply into themselves and their need for deep change. This is also a danger in any process that is developed in the United States, including the NC-TJRC process.   Engaging white supremacy at its roots will be very challenging, as it is has to do with touching that part of us that makes us truly human and connects us with other humans across the historical ditches of racism, nationalism, regionalism, genderism and all the other “isms” that cause one to view “surface” differences in the human family as a justification to exploit, devalue, injure and even kill others and justify it based on making certain people “the other” and inherently “less than” or just “evil.”  This is a very difficult challenge to overcome.  It does, in our humble opinion, require a greater measure of deep truth and love of humanity. 
  • Third, and very closely related to the first two, is that there was inadequate attention given to the economic sphere.   While there was a shift in political power, the deep historic and ongoing damage done in the economic sphere was not meaningfully addressed.  When we were in South African in 2007 at the invitation of the Tutu family, some of us talked with economically poor Black youth one night on a corner in Soweto. They shared their disgust at seeing whites who admitted to viciously killing Black people walk away free.  In contrast, they argued that if they stole a chicken or some food because they were hungry and impoverished, they would be given active jail sentences.  I know this is an over simplification as the economic system is international and complex, but such complexity should not stand as an excuse for evil in South Africa or the United States.  We in the U.S. must simply strive to do better. 
  1. Building Power and Forging Relationships across the State and the Forms of Power That Overcome Polarization and Produce Positive Policy Changes

A major part of the success of the NC-TJRC will be our capacity to forge positive relationships with people and organizations that are already active, i.e. organizers, researchers, scholars, and current participants in the social justice movement, etc.   

In concrete terms,  we will seek to grow positive relationships with people working in the six issue focus areas mentioned in the Delectation of Intent: the abuse of police powers and judicial processes; blocks and impediments to financial security and wealth creation; blocks and impediments to adequate housing; blocks and impediments to quality physical and mental healthcare; blocks and impediments to voting and full participation in the democratic process; the disparate impact of climate change and other ecological factors on people of color and the poor. 

In the process of doing our work, our hope is that we will de-intensify the growing polarization, grow greater “community truth” and seek expanded common ground among the diversities of people in our state, particularly the poor and excluded.  If we make progress in these areas, this will be a somewhat different kind of “people power” base. We will necessarily have to make strategic and tactical decisions, much of which will have to grow out of the process itself and is currently beyond the scope of further reflections in this document.

  1. Projected Launch of the NC-TJRC Process

We have not tried to keep it a secret that we are working towards a NC-TJRC process.  However, we have chosen not to make any formal statements about our plans.  There were and are too many loose ends.  When we make a formal public statement about the NC-TJRC, we intend to have on-boarded key staff members, a fully confirmed Advisory Committee, a committed “kitchen cabinet,” and a thoughtful plan on how to best publicly launch the process. At this point our anticipated launch date will be between August 15 and September 15th

Our launch will include a plan to reach out to a variety of individuals, organizations, and networks to inform them of the NC-TJRC process and to suggest ways they can be involved.  Some of the organizations and leaders include:

  • Statewide religious organizations and leaders
  • Statewide grassroots organizations and leaders 
  • Statewide labor unions and leaders
  • Statewide youth organizations and leaders (including student organizations and leaders)
  • Law School organizations and leaders
  • And, a network of as many local, grassroots, movement oriented organizations as we reasonably can.  

With this vision, our media and communications capacity has to be firmly in place.  We must be able to get our message out effectively and quickly. Of course, inquiries and offers to help are to be expected, and we must be prepared to respond to those in an efficient and timely manner as well.    

  1. Summary and Concluding Words on the Eminent Situation Before Us

We have set forth a bold vision, sketched out initial elements of a plan and begun the difficult journey of growing greater truth, justice, reconciliation and healing in our state. Objectively, this is building on the work in Greensboro, including the TRC, for which suffering was endured, blood was spilled, and lives taken.  If reasonably successful, we believe this initiative can be a significant contribution to the nation.  The push we are currently making would not have been possible except for the love, work and contributions of many people (the family) across the nation.  For this we are grateful.

Developing the NC-TJRC is a challenging undertaking and is likely to become more difficult in the months and years to come.  As we said earlier in this document, “It is difficult to see how the nation can continue in its current mode and direction without descending deeper into more devastating and violent division and conflict.”

We have been in weekly discussions and planning with a strategically located group of people for over a year, including the Rev. Dr. Peter Story one of the leaders of the South African TRC process. Even though some progressive strides have been made in the United States over the last year (specifically the national election), it is our humble opinion that the national crisis has continued to grow deeper and wider.  

Under the false banner that “the election was stolen”, the former president, and leader of the January 6th insurrection, is being embraced on an even deeper level by a significant slice of the US population, including the base and leadership of the Republican Party. At this moment, our elected national leadership does not seem to have a clear pathway forward to effectively rally the majority of the American people around a clear vision and steps to “save the soul of the nation, while transforming the circumstances of the people of this country.

In a sense the insurrection is on a slow burn toward the further destabilization and ultimately the destruction of the already deeply flawed democratic/economic institutions of our nation. It is not clear when the “slow burn” will swiftly expand into a raging inferno.   That is the growing danger.  In a real sense, we are in a race against time. 

The primary fuel for this burn is the ideology of white supremacy and the economic system that promotes growing poverty and wealth inequality, all of which has its particular history.   It is becoming clearer, at least for some of us, that the historical damage of white supremacy inflicted on Black people, Native American and “third world” nations has also been inflicted on white people themselves, especially poor whites.    As white people lose their numerical majority and their capacity to dominate, the false stories they have told themselves about matters, such as their greatness and goodness, are being peeled back. This is unleashing hidden trauma and openness to a range of dangerous conspiracy theories.  This is the base of the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement.

As a child in grade school in the late forties and fifties (Nelson), the word slavery was not in text books that we used.  Instead, slavery was called the “peculiar institution.”  This was a form of hiding from the truth and replacing it with false narratives.   Now, a movement, an obsession, has developed to band the teaching of what is called critical race theory.  This is simply another mechanism to avoid the truth of this brutal aspect in the history of our nation.  The growing acceptance of falsehood, conspiracy theories, division, conflict and hate are parts of the slow burn.

The substance of our thinking and commitment that we have tried to put forth is this rushed document is to join in growing a process, indeed a movement in North Carolina, rooted in the truth of our tortured history but also rooted in a history of generosity, determined resistance and a deep belief in the human capacity (all humans) to change for the better. 

We invite your response and continued help.

Love, peace and blessings,

Nelson and Joyce Johnson

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Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Watch: Voices for New Democracy Forum With the Beloved Community Center

In our latest monthly political forum, Nelson and Joyce Johnson from Greensboro, North Carolina’s Beloved Community Center discussed their efforts in building and sustaining the organization.

Among their other work, they led efforts to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1999 to help the community heal from the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, in which five local labor and antiracist organizers were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party under the watch of the Greensboro police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Currently, they are also fighting to establish a new Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission at the statewide level to continue advancing the fight for a truly “Beloved Community.”

Watch the full forum below, and check back with Voices for New Democracy on June 24th when we will share a piece by Nelson & Joyce Johnson reflecting on their work.

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Analysis Commentary Economic Justice Immigration Social Justice

Commentary: The Root Cause of Central American Migration Is US Imperialism

This post offers commentary on the article, “The Root Cause of Central American Migration Is US Imperialism,” written by Suyapa Portillo Villeda and Miguel Tinker Salas, and recently published in Jacobin. Read the full piece here.

Earlier this week, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala as part of a series of foreign policy meetings regarding Central American migration. But despite the Biden administration’s promises to close the chapter on Trump-era policies by welcoming immigrants and building a more just immigration system, Harris quickly indicated that tight border restrictions are here to stay. Speaking to migrants in Central America, Harris’s message was explicit: “Do not come. Do not come.”

While Harris’s trip was ostensibly meant to begin discussions with foreign leaders around addressing the “root causes” of Central American migration, the overarching message she conveyed was that the United States will turn you back at the border if you try to come. (It’s worth noting that this is legally dubious; all migrants have a right to seek asylum at the US border under existing immigration law.) And even when discussing the “root causes” of migration, Harris continued to disappoint, focusing primarily on issues of corruption and lack of economic opportunity. As many immediately pointed out, Harris failed to recognize that the United States itself has long been one of the key actors animating these “root causes” in the first place.

In a recent Voices for New Democracy forum, scholar Miguel Tinker Salas discussed the United States’ historic record of involvement in Central America and how it continues to animate migration patterns today. He also recently published a new piece with the scholar Suyapa Portillo Villeda in Jacobin magazine elaborating on these issues in the context of the controversy Harris has provoked.

Does anyone believe that promoting “economic development” by expanding the presence of foreign companies in Central America will slow immigration? Does anyone believe that callously declaring “Do not come” will improve the lot of would-be migrants?

https://jacobinmag.com/2021/06/kamala-harris-central-america-guatemala-visit-us-imperialism

Throughout the last century, they argue, the United States has been deeply involved in shaping a neocolonial reality in Central America, as the American economy relies heavily on cheap Central American labor. With this history in mind, Harris’s gestures towards expanding economic opportunity ring hollow – another justification for American-led development and economic policy more likely to favor multinational corporations than potential migrant populations. Ultimately, if we want to get serious about root causes, we must begin with US empire.

Read the full piece, “The Root Cause of Central American Migration Is US Imperialism,” via Jacobin.

Categories
Analysis Ecological Justice Economic Justice Financial Justice Social Justice

Climate Change, Social Justice Stalk World’s Central Banks

| Steve Clark |

Today’s global crisis has two major dimensions. 

On the one hand, exponential population growth, massive industrial expansion, and surging waste in our atmosphere (over the past century and a half) have forged an ecological catastrophe of existential proportions.

On the other hand, exploitation of “Global South” nations, extreme wealth polarization in every nation and worldwide, and persistent ethnic, racial, religious, gender and settler injustice have created a social catastrophe that stands between civilization and any effort to tackle this ecological reckoning. 

Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement and others bear witness to impending ecological collapse, saying we have only a decade to make amends. Otherwise, civilization as we know it will go the way of the Roman empire and others that, in their times, outgrew and overwhelmed Nature and suffered centuries-long dark ages in their eventual collapse.

Despite decades of inattention and little leadership from most nations’ politicians, certain other key entities are considering or making adjustments. 

Among these are central banks (CBs). Whether from capitalist or socialist perspectives, many CB analysts and staffers and a growing number of governors recognize mounting ecological risks and, thus, the danger of economic collapse. They see the need to be proactive. 

Few central bankers, however, seem to appreciate the social justice necessary for a true ecological renaissance. No doubt, this shortcoming reflects the primary goal of western bank systems, maximizing private bank profit. 

The IMF, BIS and World Bank are run by the world’s central bankers, each voting according to the size of its economy. Of course, the US dominates. But, the matter of how to ensure adequate investment credit for the Global South — made even more apparent by the inequities of the current pandemic — is on the table but vexing for the financial elite. Despite rhetoric about a global climate crisis, most central bankers still find more ready focus in domestic concerns.

Below are some recent links with excerpts from various central bank climate commentators.

Yellen and Powell

Current Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — the former Federal Reserve Chair (under Obama) — says, “President Biden has outlined an ambitious strategy to transition the United States to net-zero emissions and has mobilized the entire government to achieve it. At Treasury, our goal is to take this ‘whole-of-government’ approach and turn it into a ‘whole-of-economy’ approach”. Current Chair Jerome Powell, despite Republican criticism, also is on-board.

2018 – “A GREEN BANK OF ENGLAND” INTERNET POSTING

“The Bank of England is uniquely placed to explain the links and trade-offs between the low-carbon transition and other economic objectives, and to promote both where possible. It can retain its operational independence over monetary and financial policy even if the goals or parameters of policy are altered. Indeed, the choice of those goals is fundamentally a political question: political reform has modified the Bank’s purpose to suit historical and economic context in the past. The climate crisis presents an urgent change in context. The UK needs a central bank with a mandate which reflects that” 

How Debt and Climate Change Pose ‘Systemic Risk’ to World Economy

“The combination of debt, climate change and environmental degradation ‘represents a systemic risk to the global economy that may trigger a cycle that depresses revenues, increases spending and exacerbates climate and nature vulnerabilities,’ according to a new assessment by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others, which was seen by The Times. It comes after months of pressure from academics and advocates for lenders to address this problem.

“’We cannot walk head on, eyes wide open, into a debt crisis that is foreseeable and preventable,’ the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, said last week as he called for debt relief for a broad range of countries. ‘Many developing countries face financing constraints that mean they cannot invest in recovery and resilience.’”

The Changing Climate of Central Banking

“Finally, even monetary policy itself has begun to align with climate issues. Late last year, Sweden’s Riksbank announced a new climate-related exclusion policy. Similarly, the BOE (Bank of England) is expected to indicate later this year how it will account for the climate impact of its corporate-bond holdings. Several ECB (European Central Bank) decision-makers have called for climate risks to be incorporated into corporate bond purchases and collateral policy. And the NGFS (Network for Greening the Financial System) has just published technical guidance for “adapting central bank operations to a hotter world.” 

IMF, World Bank must support developing countries’ recovery 

“Most developing countries cannot do more due to financing constraints. As public spending needs shoot up, the pandemic has significantly cut their revenue. Recent IMF research found ‘larger output losses are experienced by countries with lower GDP per capita,’ partly due to ‘lower fiscal stimulus.’

“With limited tax and other revenue, developing countries will need to borrow more, increasing their already high public debt. As the IMF notes, ‘The international community [needs] to provide additional support through grants, concessional financing, and, in some cases, debt relief.’” 

Central Banks should turn green

“In a sign of how far things have come, this week the Network for Greening the Financial System, which includes the world’s major central banks, published a ‘toolkit’ of ways monetary policy institutions can address climate change in their operations.

“As Klaas Knot, president of the Dutch central bank, told an FT (Financial Times) climate conference last week, ‘We shouldn’t be tempted to think that we are the primary actors here. The primary actors are really the governments.’ Central banks should follow, but first it is the job of democratically elected governments to lead.” 

Categories
Analysis Ecological Justice Economic Justice Financial Justice Social Justice

Watch: Voices for New Democracy Forum on Economic Democracy

Since the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, the American economy has experienced a tremendous rise in inequality, massive disruptions to traditional forms of industrial capitalism, growing financialization, and increasing debt burdens to uphold our economic system. While some of these trends have been the result of international developments and technological innovations, many of these negative outcomes are rooted in an absolutist free-market approach to

With the contemporary Left now on the rise, and a world-historic pandemic prompting serious reconsideration of our political economy, now is the time to begin thinking seriously about the kinds of transformations we want to see – and how we can make such a transition.

In Voices for New Democracy’s latest monthly forum, J. Phillip Thompson – NYC Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives and former Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – offers a new perspective on building a more progressive, equitable, and sustainable economic system that he calls “economic democracy.” Drawing on both the insights and shortcomings of diverse movements from 19th century socialism, to consumer and cooperative movements, and so-called “price theory,” Thompson raises important ideas and questions about the current trajectory of developed economies and how we can adapt to build more just and equitable societies.

Read Thompson’s essay on economic democracy here, and watch the full forum below.

Categories
Analysis Ecological Justice Economic Justice Financial Justice Social Justice

Essay: What is Economic Democracy?

| J. Phillip Thompson |

This essay compares a version of Economic Democracy (ED), in a thumbnail fashion, to two trends that have dominated thinking about the economy over the last two centuries; I label them ‘productivism’ and ‘price theory.’ Many books have been written on these topics, and a brief essay cannot begin to do justice to the many insights, arguments, overlaps, and nuances on all sides. Nonetheless, there are big enough differences between these different trends to at least establish them as distinct trends, with important consequences. The essay assesses how these concepts differ in four areas: (a) how they interpret value? ‘Value’ in economics refers to who and what contributes to overall economic well-being and prosperity; (b) their analysis of how community relates to the economy; (c) how they explain alienation, or social hostilities related to the economy?; and, (d) their understanding of the role science and technology plays in the economy. At the end, I address potential criticisms of ED from the Right and Left. For those not wanting to read the entire article, please read Section V at the end on criticisms from the Left as it is more or less a summary of the paper. 

I. Productivism

Who and What Creates Value?

Early (19th century) political economists such as David Ricardo and Karl Marx (who adopted Ricardo’s labor theory of value) argued that value was created by labor (workers) during the course of production. I label this trend ‘productivist.’ For productivists, the value of an item depends on how much labor it took to produce it. The price of labor was a combination of the cost of reproducing workers and the result of struggles between workers and employers over wages. This was a widely held view in the 19th century. Since people regularly saw workers plowing fields or stitching together products right in front of them, it seemed almost self-evident who and what was creating value. Today, with production of goods usually out of sight (and country), and with machines and software doing “work,” the connection between workers and value creation is less apparent. 

Community

The founders of the US constitution had a weak sense of community, or the “We” of “We the People.” They restricted voting to property-holding white men. Racism and sexism aside, part of their reasoning was that political participation required time and education that only people with economic means could fulfill. Worries about mass political participation by street mobs steered by demagogues were heightened following the French revolution, where not only monarchists but left-wing democrats and anti-slavery advocates were suppressed, and sometimes executed. Yet, the corrective for such destructive mob action, e.g., providing ordinary citizens with the time and resources to effectively and wisely participate in governance, was not resolved during the founding or after. More than a few of the Founders believed that ensuring widespread property ownership was a way of making non-elite white men more responsible and capable citizens. Thus, when voting rights were extended to white men in the early 1800s, it was accompanied by aggressive seizures of land occupied by Native Americans in order to distribute the property to white males. Democracy, including civic participation of white men, emerged on the backs of native peoples, black slaves, and women. Civic participation of the excluded majority of the population, which the community issue raises, was pushed aside.  

Marx, a productivist in economics early in his life, theorized from England about the impact that emerging capitalism would have on civic organizations and popular consciousness. He argued that capitalist industrial organization was leading workers to associate in factories and cities, and their common fight against exploitation on the job would lead them to embrace ‘class consciousness,’e.g., that class rather than ethnicity or religion or nation would become workers’ main form of identity. Marx was partially correct. Trade unions did grow out of workplaces and became an important component of civic participation for workers, especially for white male workers in cities in the US and Europe. Marx did not deeply consider how slavery, colonialism, or women’s role in society would affect workers’ sense of community. 

Alienation

The German philosopher Hegel argued that human beings are linked together and dependent on one another, even when this mutual dependence is not socially recognized.  Marx took this insight from Hegel and argued that capitalism (private ownership and control of large businesses) alienates workers from the products of their labor, and makes it seem as though the products of mutual efforts between workers and business owners belong only to the owners and investors. Because the role of workers is not recognized when owners put products up for sale, Marx argued that the entire system of capitalist alienation was embodied in the existence of each and every ‘commodity’ (a good for sale). To illustrate what he meant, imagine that a bunch of workers who make home building products in New Orleans became homeless after Hurricane Katrina. They also lost their jobs and income. When they went to HomeDepot, they saw a huge supply of homebuilding products they themselves had made, much of which would never sell because so few people had money after the hurricane. Yet they could not use the products they made to rebuild their homes, because they too didn’t have money. This is what Marx meant by people being alienated from ‘commodities’ that are actually the products of their own labor. Such alienation often makes little sense from a practical and humanistic standpoint. Making sense of deprivation in the midst of plenty, as in the New Orleans example, requires taking in an entire range of ideological arguments about the inherent benefits of capitalist social relations–that Marx argued were little more than smoke intended to confuse and mystify workers. The Hungarian economic historian Polanyi, writing in the mid-20th century, similarly noted that capitalism created entirely novel situations in human history where starvation took place even when food was available in other parts of the same community. 

Another part of alienation might be seen as inevitable. Hegel argued that people come to know things through interacting with them over time, e.g., knowledge is developmental and retrospective. Marx built on this perspective to develop a theory that all people first encounter capitalism lacking an understanding of its nature and consequences. Over time, workers gradually realize that capitalism has made them into an exploited “class,” and that they would be better-off running the economy themselves. This transition process Marx described as a class, “in itself,” becoming a class, “for itself.” Alienation of people from capitalism would be overcome by the actions of the people based on their gradually developed understanding of the system, and then their action to change it. There are many who now argue, however, that the entire classical tradition of social theorizing in terms of entire systems such as “capitalism,” “market society,” “socialism,” or “democracy,” creates an illusion of coherence and irreversibility of social institutions which robs people of their agency. Law, government structure, and markets, are the cumulative result of innumerable political struggles and compromises at various points in time. Once established, these institutions affect the present, but they do not determine the course of the future—people do. In this view, grandiose theorizing is itself alienating, and so is positivist social science which takes current institutional arrangements as an unquestioned given. 

Technology

  Marx was one of the original theorists of technology. Again leaning on Hegel, Marx viewed capitalism as a stage in human development that would be superseded by other stages. In unfinished later work, Marx argued that his productivist approach was only valid for the earlier stage of capitalism. In late capitalism, human labor would be displaced by science and technology. Science and technology would be the product of “social knowledge,” developed through schools and intellectual discourse, and not reducible to individual worker or entrepreneurial inputs. As science and technology enabled enough production to take care of basic human needs at little cost, there would be little reason, other than capitalism’s antiquated social relations, to limit workers’ interests in pursuing their passions for art, sports, literature, exploration of new frontiers, etc..  Marx also theorized that as technology replaced human labor, under-employed workers would not have enough buying power to sustain profits, thereby leading to stagnation in advanced capitalist countries. Many economists argue that this is consistent with what the US has been experiencing over the last 20 years. We will return to this theme at the end of the essay. 

II. Price Theory

Who and What Creates Value?

Government policy, and general thinking about the economy, has been primarily guided in recent decades by a narrative variously called “neo-liberal,” “marginalist,” and, “choice theory.” I will group these under the label “price theory” of value. Price theory is an image or story about how the economy works. Like productivism, it is not an empirically settled research finding. Problems in the productivist narrative created space for rival 19th century interpretations of how value is created. In price theory, value is determined by how much money (the marginal amount) people are willing to pay for an item given their other priorities. The price narrative seems commonsensical today because it fits with our current consumer experiences, where most people think of the economics in terms of shopping rather than themselves making or growing the things they buy (only 11% of the US workforce make or grow things). Unlike productivism, price theory leaves room for psychological factors like fashion, having nothing to do with the amount of human labor expended to make a product, that may drive the value of a good up or down. 

While price theory has a more sophisticated view of the consumer side of the market than productivism, its approach to social relationships during the production process is wanting. Price theory takes a flat face-value approach to evaluating the contributions people make to the economy. Opposed to the productivist view that producers (workers and farmers) put value into their products which is then represented in prices, price theory turns things the other way around. If people are willing to pay a given amount for a product or employee, then that is what the product or employee is worth. They posit this not only as a statement of fact in terms of money payments, but as a peoples’ verdict of actual value to the economy. People and firms making the most money is considered as evidence that they contribute most to the economy. Adherents call this “the market speaking,” and argue that is it similar to democracy. Yet in this “market speech” only money has a voice. Price theory became popular in direct opposition to workers’ and socialist movements in the late 19th century, and again in the late 20th century in opposition to domestic and global movements for economic equity.

Community

Price theory’s contention that the value of something consists of what people will pay for it, and that market speech is freedom, is a kind of (libertarian) anarchism. In this worldview, entirely unsupported by empirical evidence, people are considered as self-interested atomized individuals. Their market “speech” is not a spoken language between people, it consists of data on how individuals spend money. ‘Community’ to them is simply an agglomeration of actors sharing like self-interests; what really matters are individual choices. To understand why this is anarchistic, we need only to take a step back. Is what is good for society simply the sum total of individual desires? Are what individuals desire necessarily what’s best for them? Wouldn’t the answer depend on how their desires came about, or their level of maturity? For example, is a young persons’ desire to smoke cigarettes the result of her education about the risks of smoking, of robust and informed discussion about smoking with family and teachers, or is it the result of heavy marketing to children of candy flavored electronic vapes, and of peer pressure during junior high school? If the latter, would we still say that vape and cigarette sales contribute value to the economy? Would we say that we don’t need civic associations or government to play a role in guiding young peoples’ thinking, or in regulating cigarettes and vape? Similarly, does a family willing to pay more money for a house in an all-white neighborhood mean that all-white neighborhoods contribute more value to the economy? Are we okay with people choosing housing based on race, with no consideration of its effects on the larger community and democracy? Price theory would be silent on both questions, because price theory has no concept of social value, or of human development, or of how civic institutions are needed to shape values in ways that create mutual prosperity and wellness. This libertarian anarchism slides into corporate domination when corporations have free rein to influence peoples’ preferences for the narrow aim of selling their products. We saw this during Facebook’s and Twitter’s acquiescence to white nationalist and fascistic use of their platforms to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Unrestrained “free market” anarchistic capitalism leaves little role for civic associations, social ideals, and government; it provides corporations with an open field to control or undermine democracy. 

Alienation

Although some neo-Marxist versions of price theory (choice theory) discuss the clash of self-interests between workers and business owners, price theory gives little attention to alienation. Labor domination and exploitation are important topics for productivists, but price theory focuses narrowly on individual market choices. When it comes to income distribution, price theory simply assumes workers are paid according to their economic contribution (their ‘marginal product’); there is no exploitation. Opposition to this “neo-liberal” blind-spot undergirded labor’s opposition to the Obama administration’s global trade initiative (TPP). Allowing “the free market” to set prices for labor ignored the fact that some European countries subsidize certain industries for political reasons, and that other countries allow child labor, e.g., there is no such thing as a politically unmediated free market. Price theory can lead to absurd ideas, including how the US measures the Gross National Product (GDP). Many things that cost a lot of money, and are therefore counted as adding value to our GDP, in fact do the opposite. High healthcare spending, for example, is counted in the GDP as adding value, but it mostly reflects poor community health and administrative waste. 

Price theory operates at such a high level of abstraction that it tends to blind people to real world exploitation and the human cost of economic choices. Landlords, for instance, who own apartments near transit stops, or near workplaces in cities where housing is scarce, can jack up prices, thus diminishing resources young renters need to continue their education or maintain their health. Raising the rent does not make landlords value creators, as the price narrative suggests. Similarly, price theorists have glibly assumed that workers can move to whatever part of the country offers incrementally higher wages for their services—this is how, they say, the market achieves optimum efficiency. A workers’ family history (their parents and grandparents buried in the local cemetery) and community ties with church and neighbors do not matter in their calculations—neither does mental health. 

Price theory also grossly mischaracterizes the role of government and civic actors in creating value. In their view, government is an interest group just like corporations. Government policies, however, not only impact markets, they determine what markets will be. For example, banks depend on federal insurance to attract deposits that they can then invest. Otherwise, financial markets would shrink. Very often the private sector takes credit for value created by government and civic actors. Uber makes profits, for example, but the institutions that make Uber successful include the federal government which made risky long-term investments to develop GPS and the Internet, the universities that did the research for government, the state and local agencies that build roads and maintain street lights, and the public schools that taught consumers and drivers how to read. Government, universities, public schools, community non-profits, and workers all created value that Uber takes advantage of. Misunderstanding value creation lies behind the conservative notion that government should stay clear of business, and that non-profits and public workers deserve less compensation than private sector ‘value-creators.’ Not only factory workers are alienated from the fruits of their labor in neo-liberal practice, so are government actors and non-profits. 

Technology

Price theory imagines little beyond market transactions and lacks conceptual resources to think through the social implications of current technological developments. With their focus on individual choices, price theorists often imagine that they are getting down to the granular essence of human behavior in a way that parallels natural science. They develop extensive mathematical models in an attempt to prove that the economy strives for states of optimum “equilibrium” in much the same way that the human body strives for equilibrium. Imagining the economy as a natural (or supremely rational) organism, they do not imagine another economic system superseding this one. When confronted with the challenge of technology displacing workers, and thus continually depressing consumer demand, they turn to ad hoc fixes like Universal Basic Income (UBI), e.g., giving workers money to keep demand going and prevent economic collapse. Yet, technology poses other challenges beyond reduced consumer spending. The most dynamic parts of the economy today are driven by science and technology—software, computers, robotics, bio-engineering—and science and technology emanate from the brainpower of highly trained scientists, engineers, machine operators, etc.. Such brainpower comes from the widespread cultivation of peoples’ abilities, and not only or especially market actors. The creators of scientific and technological capacity are typically people who don’t sell anything at all: government employees issuing research grants, teachers at universities, and school teachers who educate and cultivate children. In the price narrative, where one’s income determines worth, these key contributors to the tech economy are made to appear relatively unproductive and unimportant, and brainpower is massively underdeveloped. 

III. Economic Democracy

Who and What Creates Value?

Beyond biological and ecological necessities, human beings decide what they value in the context of their upbringing and social environment. The key question is how; through what structures and developmental processes do people make value decisions? Broadly speaking, there are three ways people can express their economic priorities. One way is through the market. We can question whether people’s priorities, especially poor peoples’ needs, are meaningfully captured through an impersonal system where individual consumers make choices solely through what they purchase—as the price theory model maintains. Another way is through government. There are a few countries where government planners decide what and how much to produce or buy for the entire country. This is the state socialist model, which has proven problematic in incentivizing innovation as well as in meeting citizen demands for a diversity of products. A third, and least familiar approach in the US, is a ‘civic-economic’ or cooperative model where citizens (workers and consumers) directly govern businesses across the spectrum. The concept of ED is often conflated with cooperative firms, however it can apply just as much to market-dominated and government-dominated economies. The key is that citizens are enabled through civic intermediary organizations to steadily develop and expand the scope of their collective and informed decision-making about their value priorities. In a market society like the US, citizens can organize collective purchasing groups to reward firms that comport with their priorities, and shape markets that way. They can also organize for participatory pension management through unions, they can organize masses of shareholders in big companies. And, they can use their voting power to pressure government to impose rules and regulations over market actors. All this is in addition to increasing the number of cooperative firms. In practice, most countries mix all three of the above systems in different ways. For example, Scandinavia has more government planning (social democracy) than does the US. Parts of Spain, Italy, and Canada have a lot more cooperative firms than the US. 

Why is putting citizens at the center of economic decision-making important? First, it guards against tyranny and exploitation. Many call the US economic-political structure an oligarchy (a form of tyranny) because of the excessive influence of a small number of wealthy donors (from large corporations) on government. Second, ED enables workers and community members themselves to define the common good, not private firms claiming to speak for the people, in the forefront of public policy. Private profit-seeking firms do not develop products or innovations to benefit the general public, unless it makes money for them specifically. Many things citizens need and want, clean air for example, do not emerge from private firms. Last, ED focuses on building bonds among citizens and humanity beyond our borders. In ED settings, citizens are able to deliberate collectively through an array of ‘civic-economic’ intermediate organizations that are not government-controlled or manipulated by big corporations. Citizens debate and agree upon their economic priorities, which are then expressed in their individual capacities as voters and consumers, but also through the policies of an array of worker-owned ‘civic-enterprises.’ The goals of ED mirror those of political democracy. A key argument for ED is that it provides a practical means and multiple venues for developing habits of good citizenship, good governance, and shared prosperity, on a daily basis. The absence of ED is threatening political democracy.   

Government is critical for ED. For starters, government is needed to curb and compensate for inherent disfunctions of markets. As the economist Keynes argued nearly a century ago, the public cannot trust markets to function smoothly based on individual choices, as price theory argues, and must intervene when people act out of irrational “animal instincts” like fear, hysteria, or ‘group think’—such as when the economy froze in 2007. Also, left alone, capitalism’s drive for ever higher profits, and ever lower wages and taxes, makes life unbearable for most of the population. Workers’ use of democracy to win government relief measures are ironically what enables capitalism to not self-destruct. Government regulation of the market economy, and smoothing out of its unequal outcomes, helps ED to develop by stabilizing markets. Government is also needed to bolster and protect civil society from domination by powerful private actors such as corporations. Labor unions, for example, have a hard time staying in existence without laws ensuring freedom to organize and fair bargaining. 

Government powerfully shapes the economy in a myriad of ways. Allowing the Federal Reserve to operate as a private agency, for example, provides money to banks with no requirements beyond return on investments (profits). This structure empowers private banks to be major decision-makers in the economy. Through taxation policies, government regulates how much inequality is permissible. Government also sets the rules that shape markets, and helps determine winners and losers in many markets through its procurements and subsidies. What’s even less understood is that government is the nation’s leader for innovation. Many key innovations, such as computers and the Internet, took many years of patient investment with high risks—no venture firm would do that. 

Government is also the most powerful means for transforming the economy towards ED. Government could dramatically increase public and civic ownership and voice in the economy in a myriad of ways. Government could easily take ownership shares when it invests in companies, or put policy requirements on such companies. Tesla, for example, received a $465 million loan from the Federal government in 2009. Unlike a venture capital firm, the Federal government only asked for shares of the company (3 million shares) if the loan wasn’t paid back. Since then, the value of Tesla stock has soared, making Elan Musk one of the richest persons on earth—government got none of the upside, nor any voice in the company. This is the typical approach for state and local government as well. Our economic ills can be powerfully addressed by redefining government’s role in the economy, in addition to democratizing how firms and other economic institutions are owned and operated. Government’s role in the economy should be to: (a) provide for the social and physical infrastructure needed for both people and enterprises to thrive; (b) educate the public on the value of social cooperation (multi-racial democracy), and enable citizen participation and control over major economic decisions; (c) ensure that markets are inclusive, diverse, and equitable; (d) protect the earth. ED moves toward a society where citizens are better educated and knowledgeable about economics, well paid, and engaged in economic decision making at all levels: on the job, in community-owned ventures, through stock and pension management, and through officials they elect to serve in government. Such a society needs a robust and independent civic sector including independent media and universities, non-profit advocates and watchdog groups focused on both government and economic institutions. ED would encourage, or at least remove many economic obstacles to, cross-national cooperation fostering equitable development world-wide, as opposed to militaristic approaches in support of economic predation. 

Community

Community, from the local level stretching to the transnational, is the central concept in ED. This section begins by explaining why Americans tend to have a narrow individualistic idea of freedom, one that is separated from community membership. I then argue that freedom in the US has long been racialized. Ways to overcome racial division and establish a common attachment to community are then discussed. The section ends with a discussion of the need for civic infrastructure to realize the promise of democracy; ED is a key part of that civic infrastructure.

Freedom

To build a vision for community life in an ED, it is useful to tie in the concept of ‘negative’ versus ‘positive’ freedom. Negative freedom means the absence of domination, usually from the state. If government does not interfere with the content of mass media, for example, then the press enjoys negative freedom. Positive freedom concerns (at least) two things: the actual ability (ways and means) of citizens to pursue their goals in life; and the actual ability of citizens to make government, and we would say also big corporations, adhere to their collective will. Positive freedom advocates maintain that the ability of citizens to make government bend to its “collective will” goes beyond having elections and counting individual votes; to truly hold government officials accountable, citizens need time, money, an independent media, ways to monitor elected officials, and ways to deliberate constructively with other citizens. Positive freedom is implied in the notion that government authority is based on the “consent” of the people. In order to give consent in a meaningful way, citizens must be aware of what they are consenting to, which suggests they already have the capacity to collectively “self-rule.” What is meant by “self-rule” is that citizens have the ability to formulate proposals, to freely debate and deliberate ideas with other citizens, and then to have their priorities implemented. In the US, freedom is generally understood as “negative,” which does not require a rigorous evaluation of civic capacities, nor thinking much about others. 

Freedom and Race

There are good reasons why a thin negative concept of freedom predominates in the US. It’s largely because freedom was defined, for hundreds of years, against the backdrop of slavery. Not being forced to labor for free; not being physically confined to one’s place of work; not having your employer totally control your family and personal life; not having any rights against the state; these were all negative liberties that white men had, and slaves did not. Comparing their condition to slaves, white laborers felt free simply not to experience social death. White workers’ freedom, limited as it was, was inseparable from their being considered “white.” 

Positive freedom would have meant the ability of early Americans to formulate, through associations of their own, policies they wanted government and major economic actors to implement. Some of the more radical Founders (and grassroots dissidents) had such a vision for the US, but to demand popular power of this magnitude was too much for most Founders (a majority of whom were slaveholders) who were concerned that the popular masses would seize property. (This is how the US ended up with such a mal-apportioned Senate.) Today, the technical/bureaucratic apparatus of government and the lop-sided political influence of large corporations are obstacles to positive freedom, and like before, elite resistance to popular participation and power remains strong. Elites, however, are no longer the main impediment to ordinary citizens obtaining the ability to govern the economy. The greater barrier is racial division amongst the people: division elites cultivated after the founding for even greater protection for property than the barriers erected through the structuring of the US Senate, Electoral College, and Supreme Court.

Racial division disables constituting the “we” part of, “we the people.” There has never been a broadly accepted sense of community, collectivity, or “we,” in the US. Historically, no ideological trend has been as convinced of the inevitability of solidarity among workers across race as followers of Marx. Marx called white workers’ desire to be considered as “white,” “false consciousness,” in the belief that their material interest in solidarity with non-white workers–especially when thrown together in factories and city slums–would cause them to eventually abandon white identity. Yet, this did not happen; it is a prime example of 19th century theoretical overreach. W.E.B. DuBois, revising Marx, coined the term “psychological wage” to make the point that white identity meant more than money to most “white” workers. Marx did not anticipate that racial segregation in housing, schools, and other parts of civil society might create formidable physical barriers between workers, and instead of cross-racial solidarity growing out of workers’ lived experiences, the opposite might occur. 

Taking insights such as DuBois’s into account, black advocates and scholars have for two centuries attacked the dominant American narrative of a consensual “we the people.” To have the population considered as a “we,” there should be some sense among the population that they belong together, a willingness of different parts of the population to listen to one another, and enough mutual respect to uphold the rights of others–such as the right to vote. Even today, neighborhoods, public schools, churches, and social organizations are de facto racially segregated between whites and blacks, and to a lesser degree between whites and Latinos. This civic separation structures political division. 

Racial domination also takes place through the resource inequities across civil society. Aside from labor unions, civic organizations are funded through member contributions, corporate donations, or foundations funded by wealthy individuals. Low income communities, and especially black and Latino communities, have limited resources than can be tapped to establish participatory civic organizations. Corporate donations steer civic organizations towards compliance with their corporate priorities. Foundations are more varied, but typically offer small grants, and they also steer civic organizations towards the changing priorities of the foundation boards. Although many students of civil society call for increased funding for civic organizations to improve democracy, none to my knowledge have proposed alternatives to the three options above, thus continued dependency of black and Latino groups on white (tax subsidized) charity. 

I traced above only the surfaces of racial division in civil society, its moral underpinning is white racial hatred and unwillingness to associate with people deemed inferior. Overcoming this division is the key to extending a full (positive) democracy. Overcoming requires two kinds of work: constructing multi-racial democracy as a counter-narrative and counter-culture to racial superiority; and, engaging people from all races and backgrounds in common work and dialogue. Before discussing some next steps on these issues, I want to discuss DuBois’s view on how power is constructed in the US. 

DuBois argued that Western capitalism’s origin in slavery led civil society and government to be structured as a racial hierarchy. The inculcation of racial hierarchy was initially to justify and support a settler slave-capitalist system. Later on, racial hierarchy became important for maintaining popular white support for sustaining capitalism, especially during economic crises. Opposition to capitalism, and calls for economic reform, were frequently derided as synonyms for racial integration—which no decent white person would want. Even so, the content of white privilege offered few positive freedoms for whites: sometimes white workers got slight wage differentials above workers of color; if black workers were available, white workers might be spared the very worst jobs in a factory, farm, or household. White workers recruited into the police and military were celebrated, especially for their essential assistance in supervising and repressing non-whites. Still, the system was fragile. When an inter-racial movement of farmers and workers (Populism) emerged in the late 1800s, the government went so far as to forcibly segregate (through the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision) the nation by race. For black people, this meant that civil society and the market were not even areas of negative freedom. 

Once government and cultural institutions took a certain shape, they were not bound by the conditions of their origins; they developed a life, logic, and dynamics of their own. This has enabled racial division to play multiple roles throughout US history. For example, the shift from slavery and Jim Crow economies hasn’t made race less important. In the last half century, while black people’s role in the economy has diminished, their importance in politics has increased and the political value of anti-black racism has far exceeded the direct economic value of super-exploiting black people on the job. Racial division and the narrative of undeserving blacks winning unfair advantages via government policy and programs in fact has facilitated conservative and corporate power over the entire governmental apparatus, from foreign policy and taxes to the environment, enabling wealthy corporations their best means for gutting government while enhancing their own fortunes with tax breaks and other advantages. 

Our emphasis on multi-racial ED stems from the above, and differs from ED advocate efforts that narrowly focus on providing workers with more voice within firms, or on forming coops. Like traditional trade unionism, these latter ED efforts follow the productivist legacy that workers’ material incentives for solidarity will outweigh racist culture and politics. The reasoning goes back to 19th century assumptions that the traditional Left shares with the Right. This is the view that human beings are primarily individualistic and materialistic, and that other aspects of their identity like their race (or gender designation) supposedly pale in comparison. Yet, we cannot expect ED to broadly expand and stay on track without abandoning this naïve belief in automatic economic solidarity and addressing the country’s racial divisions: squarely confronting conservative manipulation of deeply rooted racial animosity to battle multi-racial organizing— a strategy they know to be the best approach for propping up corporate oligarchy. This will not be an easy task, it requires lots of resources and new methods for countering racial domination in civil society. 

How do we engage people who see no reason to do so? I mentioned the need for material incentives, but economic interest has not been sufficient historically. We need to change the culture that gives rise to racialized (superior/inferior) identities. There are many strategies for such engagement (and a need for more), none of which are contradictory. We could follow Frederick Douglass’s approach of lifting up the revolutionary aspirations of many of the Founders of the US, and thereby redefining the meaning of being a US citizen. In Douglass’s 1852 July 4th speech, he focused on the more radical of the founder’s: “They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation.” Continuing in this vein, countless white Americans have indeed fought racism, and many gave their lives for this cause, yet few Americans know this history because it has been buried. For example, large numbers of European revolutionaries joined with the US abolitionist movement and volunteered to fight during the US Civil War. Many of the officers of black regiments during the war were drawn from the ranks of abolitionists and European revolutionaries. By the end of the war, over half of the Union army consisted of black and immigrant soldiers. Courageous farmers and workers joined inter-racial movements such as the Populists and IWW during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many white activists fought side-by-side during the civil rights movement, and many died doing so. There is no shortage of white anti-racist heroes, showing that there is not only one way to be white, but there is not even a name for this powerful white anti-racist trend in the US. Similarly, there are many examples of black Americans fighting against the oppression of Asians and Latinos, and vice-versa. Again, there is no name for this trend. Giving names to these longstanding struggles for an inclusive multi-racial democracy, and re-educating Americans in schools and media on the fight that has made America democratic (to the extent that it is), is fundamental to moving beyond negative critiques, and creating an appealing national identity Americans can take pride and inspiration from. 

Douglass’s rhetorical strategy may have influenced Howard Washington Thurman, whom I’m told profoundly influenced Martin L. King’s rhetorical approach. Thurman believed that oppressed people hold on to kernels of truth and inspiration even when those kernels are embedded in webs of lies and mystifications—like finding a ripe apple in a bushel of rotten apples. For example, the American Dream is a falsification of history and a mystification of systemic oppression. Yet Thurman said, “Keep alive the dream; for as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” King clearly thought long and hard about this. In his rhetoric, King talked about how the American Dream was for the most part “bankrupt,” but he then went on to say that he had a different American Dream. In King’s version of the American Dream, he spelled out the aspirations of much of the black population, e.g., what the Dream could and should be. I would call King’s strategy one of ‘Critique and Affirmation’: embedding critique and truth-telling within the context of affirming peoples’ gut instinct that having a collective Dream is important. 

Thurman did the same thing in a religious context. He took the classic parable of ‘turning the other cheek’ from the Sermon on the Mount, which had been used for centuries to preach passivity to slaves, and reinterpreted it (perhaps accurately). He argued that Jesus was saying  oppressors keep the oppressed off balance by making them constantly react to their attacks (such as slaps). If all the oppressed do is react, they will never have the space to think for themselves, and strategize for their own liberation. So, what Jesus meant by ‘turn the other cheek’ is not to submit to oppression, but to develop enough internal fortitude to not allow slaps and blows to control your thoughts and emotions. In this way, Thurman helped transform black theology from an often passive doctrine into a militant one. I saw this in practice as a kid. The power of the approach was that it started from concepts and metaphors that people had already internalized, and then gradually changed what those concepts and metaphors meant to people.

Environmentalists and anti-war activists have a different and more existential approach; they point out that human survival on earth depends on nations cooperating worldwide to limit carbon emissions. This cannot happen if nations continue warring, or preparing to war, with one another. Peace activists also warn that many nations hold stockpiles of nuclear weapons and other nations are attempting to obtain them. We are never far from nuclear catastrophe. Survival of humanity is a second, and urgent, reason for Americans to re-examine their identities. A third existential reason is spiritual. The greatest argument for democracy and equality is the commonality of our existence: we do not know the origins of life; we do not know the reason for our existence, nor our ultimate destiny; we do not know our place in the universes; we all share life on earth only briefly. These are profound truths that animate religion and spirituality. Today’s climate deniers are not only science deniers, they deny the existential truths of human existence. They deny the fundamental tenants of religion that we love one another, and instead maintain that it is impossible to have a system of government and cooperative living that is anything more than the assertion of naked self-interest. The philosopher Hegel rightly said these latter views were the traits of a de-humanized society. Climate deniers thus, in essence, also crush the soul of our democracy. At various points of US history, other anti-humanist movements have sought to do just that. One hundred sixty one years ago, slaveowners were saying democracy doesn’t apply to black people or women. Social media at the time was mainly the church. So much of the debate centered on whether God intended for all people to be treated equal. The abolitionists said that God most loved the marginalized, the oppressed, and the meek. The slaveowners retorted that the abolitionists are spreading fake religion–the fake news of their day. When the Civil War concluded, 125,000 Union soldiers marched in jubilation through the streets of Washington, D.C.. The song they sang as they marched commemorated the great white abolitionist, John Brown, and what they called God’s truth, which was about the common humanity and equality of all people. The song was the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic:’ 

“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on. He captured Harper’s Ferry with his nineteen men so true, he frightened old Virginia till she trembled  through and through. They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew, but his soul goes marching on.

As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free. His truth is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement seat. Oh be swift my soul to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet! Our God is Marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah: His truth is marching on!”

In this country there is actually a great spiritual tradition of action towards multi-racial democracy (God’s “truth” of human equality), an antidote to the deep anti-democratic trends just mentioned, that must be lifted up and build upon to re-brand the meaning of freedom in America. Many in the civil rights movement took such an approach, and they learned from the experience of many wars that violence does not advance society, moral and spiritual learning does. Violence can initiate chains of revenge and resentment that block social advancement altogether. Martin L. King, Jr., noted that wars were the result of collusion between government and corporate elites, and called upon civil society to rise up (non-violently) to restore and develop democratic multi-racial governance of all of society. 

Building Civic Infrastructure

Democracy, like any other institution, requires and infrastructure and resources to function. If citizens are to truly govern society, e.g., if their consent is to be well-considered and meaningful, there needs to be infrastructure and resources available to support them. Regarding resources, I mentioned three options earlier: member or community donations, corporate funding, and foundations. Government funding for civic organizations is another option, but a limited one. Government funding for civic organizing and civic media is unlikely in the short term because Americans are divided, and cannot agree on which organizations are neutral. Funding is often a form of control, and if the purpose of civil society is to make government accountable to something outside of itself (the people), having government control funding of civic organizations is a tricky problem to navigate under the best of circumstances. A serious current danger with government funding for civic organizing is that some parties will want to use such funding to build organizations that are undemocratic and potentially violent. 

Another option is the most simple and obvious of all, it is to learn from those who have made progress influencing government from civil society. The standout cases have been labor unions and business advocates. Labor unions organize workers to take a bigger share of market returns (or government budgets) from employers. They then use a portion of the gains they receive to fund their own advocacy and capacity building. Businesses, far more extensively than unions, take a portion of their market profits to fund policy development and political advocacy. What we propose is innovating the labor union model beyond its origins in 19th century productivism, which focused on organizing workers in production sites, to incorporate the power of workers and their families as consumers. This is terrain productivists have largely ceded to the business community. Money gleaned from the consumer side of the market can be used to fund civic organizing, policy development, and advocacy; it is a far greater source of potential funding than what can be squeezed out of unions representing 6% of the workforce. A second benefit from this approach is that it allows communities of color control over resources they glean from community bargaining efforts. They can thus fund and scale up their own organizing and advocacy without depending on the good wishes of corporations, foundations, or other white dominated institutions. 

A second, and related proposal, builds on the productivist approach of increasing democracy at workplaces, by broadening the notion of “private businesses” to “civic businesses.” To clarify the difference, it again helps to go back to the early period of business development in the US. The first large businesses in the US were slave plantations. It was slaveowners who insisted that their business operations be considered entirely private, immune from the democracy being established as the country’s ethos. This was a hypocritical stance from the beginning, as noted at the time, since plantations were never “private,” they depended on government (the public) to repress slave rebellions, catch runaways, and provide other services. Plantations were autocratic in the extreme; slaves were often whipped to increase productivity, which became a norm for increasing economic “efficiency.” These plantation ways of thinking about business organization–top down, oppressive, workers having no voice—became a norm for business management in general. The idea that businesses could help train workers in participatory governance, or that businesses could be venues for peoples’ control of economic decision making, or that equality could be a boon to economic performance rather than an impediment to it, sounds strange in the US because we have not yet fully reconstructed the economy from our slavery background. Yet, there is no inherent reason why businesses cannot be turned into organs for strengthening civil society the same way that labor unions can. Creating such “mission oriented” businesses that can allocate a portion of their earnings for advocacy and civic capacity building is another pathway for funding civil society. One can imagine that with a proliferation of civic businesses and consumer bargaining units (community collectives) rooted in different communities, there will be opportunities for mergers and acquisitions among them that will involve not only money but earnest and free discussions about our racially divided past and shared dreams for the future. This would be progress towards multi-racial ED. 

Alienation 

Descriptions, complaints, and academic arguments about alienation tend to come in two forms: the desire for freedom against government domination and bureaucracy, and a more recent similar fight against corporate domination and bureaucracy. Western accounts of freedom in the context of community describe the emergence of a “public sphere,” meaning civil society and as an autonomous part of society free from domination by the state. In recent decades, there’s also been a third line of critique directed against embedded racism and patriarchy within civil society itself. The racial critique is that there’s been a silence in much of the civil society literature and discourse about systematic oppression of non-whites, including slavery, segregation, and the outright exclusion of people of color (especially blacks) from so-called free civic and market institutions. The race issue is typically considered as a “problem” associated with people of color, but race is a steering construct for white Americans as much as it is for any other group. White’s predominant conception of freedom as negative and procedural, and the continued celebration of Western society’s racialized civic culture, in a DuBoisian line of critique, leads whites to misdirect alienation in their own lives towards people of color. That is, most Americans, including whites, work under conditions of neo-dictatorship in their workplaces, having no voice in firm goal-setting or operations; they are declared free, but many do not feel that way. Ordinary Americans pay substantial sums in taxes (while Amazon paid no income taxes last year) for military, police, and prisons to enforce racial domination and corporate interests (such as oil), yet feel their urgent needs and hopes aren’t met. Moreover, because of inequalities and resentments built up over centuries, Americans live in fear of each other, especially whites’ fear of non-whites. Citizens are armed to the teeth, mass shootings and suicides are frequent, and drug abuse is  rampant. If this is what freedom represents, many people lose hope in a better America, and in democracy. Alienation is widespread, and as the world watches, the lure of American democracy is diminishing. Yet, few whites connect these ills (and their own alienation) to America’s origins in slavery and racial segregation, and to their own concept of themselves as “white,” even if they’ve never met a black person.

Going back to Abraham Lincoln, his greatest worry on the heels of the Civil War was that most white citizens did not want to be part of the same community and polity, and certainly not put on an equal footing with black people. This is still the main alienation in US society. Economic inequality and government unaccountability, in the eyes of many whites, are the result of unfair advantages handed out to people of color. The pathway to changing the economy and government is to unite Americans, but unity necessitates overcoming this white racial resentment, which is so strong that it threatens the foundations of democracy. One need only look at the Republican Party’s opposition to the right of all Americans to vote, because they believe universal voting access undermines their ability to win elections as an all-white minority party. People of color’s demand for equal treatment threatens what many whites believe has made America a successful country, and it also threatens their superior sense of personal self-worth and backing from government. How to generate a will for unity in the midst of such distrust and dislike is the content of the racial alienation problem. 

The starting point for building unity across race, in my view, is changing white American’s image of black people as wanting to take material things away from white people. Black, and other people of color, need to advocate a broadly appealing economic platform to dispute that image. A forward-looking economic platform could meet white workers where they are, and help move them away from a zero-sum calculation that they have nothing material to gain by uniting with people of color. But this is only a first step; an economic platform will not fully remove the anxiety many whites feel about no longer being a demographic majority, with the ability to dominate society. As we noted earlier, another step must be engaging whites and people of color in moral discourse, as Martin Luther King tried to do with his image of a ‘beloved community.’ What would it be like to live in a world not consumed in hate and defensiveness, full of police and nuclear weapons? Why do we still adhere to notions of inferior and superior human beings? How does our culture continue to nurture these images? ED cannot settle for being an economic platform only, if ED does not address these moral questions that divide the nation, it will flounder on the same rocks—of short-sighted calculations of group self-interest–that have long undermined broader support for labor unions. 

Advocating for system change, whether in creating a new economy, or in changing how we conceptualize labor and community organizing, or overcoming alienation in civil society, requires imagination. Even harder is awakening imagination amongst those who don’t know they lack it: “the absence of imagination has itself to be imagined.” Another area, besides race, where this is particularly true is in the relation between women and the economy. The US model of corporations as private entities, with no particular obligations to serve the public, stems from a long and largely unquestioned tradition of treating the work of nurturing, educating, and caring for children, families, the sick and elderly as unpaid ‘women’s work.’ Price theory has nothing to say on this issue. Productivists have also downplayed women’s issues historically, since most women were not working in factories or other ‘points of production.’ There is little doubt, however, that democratic engagement of women in economic decision-making would prioritize the issue of unpaid, or demeaned and underpaid, women’s work in reproducing and caring for human beings. The exceptional income disparities in the US are a direct consequence of women’s oppression (the thinness of ‘negative freedom’), for it is women who are most affected by the absence of quality publicly funded universal childcare, the absence of guarantees for affordable housing, the absence of sufficient funding for quality K-16 education, the absence of adequate and healthy food for millions, and the absence of quality universal healthcare. These absences only ‘make sense’ because women (and today, often immigrant women) are expected to work in these areas for very low pay, effectively working as semi-slaves. 

Technology

In envisioning a future economy it is important to ground utopian goals in existing economic capabilities, e.g., “the forces of production.” Those capabilities are being driven by dynamic advances in science and technology in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and gene-editing. These advances are poised to transform manufacturing, transportation, human services, energy, housing, education, communications, and healthcare—for better or for worse. Companies driven narrowly by profit-seeking have an incentive to deploy technology to replace human labor—causing unemployment. Ironically, these new technologies lower the cost of manufacturing and service provision dramatically, making it feasible to satisfy basic human needs worldwide. The conundrum is that even with technology providing the capability for abundance, technology’s ownership structure is undermining economic expansion because profit-seeking firms do not want to share the financial benefits of science and technology with workers and communities. And, unemployed and underpaid workers cannot buy many goods on the market. As mentioned earlier, Silicon Valley firms are promoting universal basic income (UBI) as a solution to this weakening of consumer demand, and as a way of calming resistance to big tech’s impact on vulnerable workers. UBI, however, is at best inadequate and short-sighted. As long as the design and use of technology is governed by short-term profit-making, it will further displace workers whose purchasing power is needed to sustain markets. The continued application of new technology will thus increasingly slow the economy down, and require ever more government intervention (more and more UBI) even to maintain workers at poverty levels. This leads to a downward spiral of economic stagnation—one we are already on, that makes little sense other than protecting extraordinary profits for small numbers of owners and investors. 

Used differently, technology could help create a very different future. Even a brief exploration can show this. Take battery powered vehicles. Most auto companies plan to convert to 100% battery powered vehicles in the near future. Battery powered vehicles consist simply of a battery and assembled parts, they can be manufactured and assembled in cities. Moreover, with computer-driven machinery, they can be designed with customer input and produced on the spot. The “autoworkers” will be designers and operators of advanced machinery. The “car” in an urban setting may be closer in size to a shopping cart than today’s conventional cars. Moreover, future cars will be “smart,” meaning often driverless, with traffic being regulated by AI via the Internet. Smart cars offer the option of ride-sharing on an extensive level; customers can use their smart-phones to call circulating driverless rideshare vehicles to take them where they want to go. Some transportation futurists predict such ridesharing will lead to far fewer individually owned vehicles, perhaps urban reductions by as much as 90 percent. The shift to smaller battery powered vehicles and fewer cars will lesson the need for entire streets and parking lots devoted to cars. This would open up space in cities that can be used for integrated affordable housing, planting trees, and beautifying cities (public art). 

Concurrent with new thinking about transportation is ocean sea-level rise and the need for carbon reduction. Two-thirds of the human population live in cities vulnerable to sea-level rise. New York City alone has 520 miles of ocean shoreline. As the ocean rises, cities will have to not only mitigate water rise through things like levees, but adapt to the ocean reclaiming land in many places. Ocean level rise is certain to force enormous rebuilding and relocating. This will create a huge number of jobs, and with sufficient job training and decent wage standards, it could create a pathway out of poverty for millions. Rebuilding also creates opportunities for creating energy in new ways, such as turbines that could possibly harness the energy of ocean tides as they pass through cities. Yet, crucially, this upheaval, in combination with changes in transportation noted above, creates an opportunity for citizens to remake cities to be inclusive, broadly prosperous, and beautiful, as well as green. Realizing opportunities for a better future requires that citizens be aware such opportunities exist, and are within their power to bring about. ED is shorthand for building the civic infrastructure to bring about such citizen awareness and capacity. With technology constrained by the narrow aims of corporate profit-making, its potent potential to enable human progress is veiled. 

IV. Conservative Counter Arguments 

The Private Sector Should Be Left Alone

Conservatives often argue that the private sector, if left alone by government and labor unions, will create prosperity for all through “the invisible hand.” Both the productivists and price theorists have long imagined that there is such a thing as an internally driven “private sector” that flows independently of government. This view is fatally misleading. Government makes the rules that create markets—in the same way that one cannot play a game of chess without rules to govern the movement of pieces. A key feature of a market economy, for example, is free and fair competition between firms. Without government oversight, larger companies typically buy out or undermine smaller firms, so that they can charge monopoly prices to consumers (this is the opposite of market efficiency). Many firms also, in their relentless pursuit of profits, pay as few taxes possible, avoid environmental regulation, and drive down wages. This leads to weakened national infrastructure and workforce capabilities, and erodes the social and ecological resources that all firms depend upon. Without government adeptly regulating business, firms focused narrowly on their own self-interest undermine social stability and imperil the earth. Far from being a hindrance to markets, strong government is critical for markets to function sustainably without causing social and environment distress. 

The above is not an argument for abolishing markets altogether. Markets allow people, firms, and localities, to specialize in what they do best while trading for things others do better. Markets are the best means societies have found for meeting wide-ranging consumer demand for specialized goods and services. In regulating or designing markets, however, their downsides must also be kept in mind. We can see how allowing a sub-set of market actors (big corporations) gain too much power, as happened in the US in recent decades, undermines social well-being. Corporate executive pay and payouts for shareholders has surged in large part due to their ability to press government for tax leniency. A consequence is less federal revenue, leaving the nation’s infrastructure in taters and workers’ social mobility among the worst in the industrialized world. Funding is so low for education that the US can’t meet the need for highly trained scientists and engineers; they must increasingly be recruited from other countries. 

Racial division, we have also noted, was cultivated within civil society to keep workers weak and divided. When private market actors have too much power, they use it to deepen social divides beyond race. Conservatives, for example, are pushing for the privatization of social security. Their goal goes beyond helping fund managers earn more commissions, there’s a political angle as well. Privatizing social security would encourage many seniors to push for higher dividends to their pension funds, and to oppose decent pay for workers. It’s a way of winning political allies for Wall Street by pitting grandparents against their grandchildren. Similarly, when affordable housing was financed through corporate tax write-offs (tax credits), community developers were encouraged to cheer for Wall Street profits over the demands of workers for higher pay–another way to divide communities. Yet, research has definitively shown (see Elinor Ostrom) that such divisions and the pursuit of individual self-interest do not produce superior economic outcomes as compared to cooperation within firms and across society. 

Markets are poorly suited for some initiatives, for example, projects that are hugely expensive to develop, take a long time, are highly risky, or serve society in common. Long-term infrastructure, like high speed ‘bullet trains,’ for example, are too expensive and difficult to build to allow for competing “bullet” rail lines (market competition). Such infrastructure is best financed and overseen by government. Government is also better at solving ‘first mover’ or ‘collective action’ problems. For example, imagine two companies, one makes electric cars and the other makes car-charging stations for electric vehicles. Car manufacturers hesitate to build battery cars until there is an extensive array of charging stations that can keep the cars running. But, the charging station manufacturers put off building an array of charging stations unless there are enough electric cars to make it worth their investment. So, nothing happens. In situations like this, government can invest in the charging stations while luring in the electric car manufacturer. Government adds economic value, as Keynes said, by doing things the market won’t.     

Economic Democracy Undermines Freedom in Favor of Totalitarianism

Another popular conservative argument is that interference with the “free market” based on consumer choice inhibits individuals’ freedom. Engaging citizens to set collective economic goals at any level raises the prospect of economic planning to help implement these goals. Conservatives frame economic planning as social coercion. The influential Austrian conservative economist Friedrich Hayek argued that markets do a better job incorporating individual innovation than planners can. Yet, Hayek ignored an important reality; big corporations already do immense planning  for example, to understand market trends, influence consumers, steer government legislation, and often to dominate markets —  not usually to unleash the innovations of small entrepreneurs. Hayek’s anti-government, anti-planning bias also meshed well with American business’s traditional opposition to government regulation—which, again, goes back to slavery. 

Still, Hayek’s challenge to ED raises a substantial issue. Would citizen oversight of major economic decisions necessarily lead to centralizing information and power in the hands of elite experts? What level of citizen oversight is realistic? Hayek believed that ordinary citizens cannot handle much information or do a lot of independent thinking. He thought that community organizing quickly turns into irrational mob action (as he saw in Europe during the rise of fascism), which is probably why he put more faith in markets as a more democratic mechanism than citizens coming together to reason and plan. Hayek hoped that citizens would be comforted enough by capitalism’s material comforts to reject grassroots action in politics. 

There is little question that uninformed and untrained citizens cannot be expected to make wise decisions concerning complex policy matters (that’s why civic infrastructure is so important). The related question is how much information can sensibly be conveyed to citizens, and how much training is possible? As in any major endeavor, the answer depends on both social ingenuity and technology. There are examples of extensive worker training and effective decision-making in worker-owned firms in Spain and elsewhere. But, we need a lot more experimentation and practical learning to develop this field. Technically, it’s never been easier to convey information to ordinary people. Inexpensive technology exists today, like smart phones, that can make information that was once difficult to obtain widely accessible. Technology can enable ordinary people to coordinate and collaborate around their higher values and principles–not just on negotiating prices and immediate self-interests. Social ingenuity exists too. For example, a group of progressive bankers in England (such things exist over there) developed a mobile phone APP that allows consumers to scan items in the supermarket. The APP shows what the producer of the shelf item pays their workers, the producers’ carbon footprint, and where they get their financing. Consumers can choose to support the green producer or not, or choose to support pro-labor employers if they so desire. This example shows how civic organizing and solidarity can be extended using a market mechanism. In fact, having only price and ingredient information available on consumer items, when people care about so many other issues, is itself a form of social coercion through the market, not the freedom that Hayek claims. Building the APP took ingenuity: a lot of meetings and planning sessions between groups that don’t regularly collaborate including labor and green activists, along with the bank. Rather than trying to pass government regulations banning bad employers and dirty companies, and building on their years of organizing work, they took a quicker route of simply allowing people to choose green and labor-friendly products through the market. 

Citizen control of the economy raises nearly identical issues as citizen control of government. If people are skeptical about citizen’s ability to govern the economy, it’s because citizens aren’t carefully overseeing government either—even though this is supposed to be the foundation of a government based on citizens’ consent. Citizen governance, whether of government or the economy, requires civic infrastructure to engage, inform, and train citizens. There are some instances in US history where such infrastructure was developed with government support, such as during Reconstruction, and the roll-out of the Tennessee Valley Authority and rural agricultural cooperatives under President Roosevelt. The Roosevelt Administration also  proposed the Industrial Recovery Act to rebuild manufacturing on a more democratic basis (regulating big businesses, increasing the role of labor and small businesses) during the Depression, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.  

Hayek was dead wrong about community participation invariably leading to demagogy and anti-democratic movements. The civil rights movement used community participation to deepen democracy, as did the Black Lives Matter movement. Most people are educatable. In NYC, for example, we learned that if we inform ordinary people about the basics of infectious disease, and make resources available to responsible local community-based organizations, the vast majority of people will adjust their behavior for the good of society. If we had not worked through trusted intermediary community organizations, and left control of Covid to the medical vaccine specialists, many more people would have died before vaccines arrived. Civic participation, when informed and deliberate, is a good thing for society.  

Hayek conceded that human beings are by nature social beings, but the operative emotion for his theory remained individualism and self-interest. This is the instinct that free-market capitalism celebrates, yet it is rebuked by modern psychology and behavioral science, not to mention practical experience. Hayek also operated at such a level of abstraction it allowed him to avoid real-life contradictions to his theory. The free market hasn’t, as Hayek predicted, been a universally democratizing force. It didn’t undermine slavery and hasn’t made white Americans anti-racists. Capitalism is currently thriving in very undemocratic countries.  

We urgently need community (civic) engagement, planning, and design to help avoid environmental catastrophe, improve public health, to engage and support disconnected youth, and ensure economic security for all—all the things markets are not doing. Hayek’s challenge is whether such planning compels us to operate our societies more undemocratically, by being governed by technocratic elites. In other words, Hayek asserts that civic engagement will ultimately make people more powerless. ED has more confidence in citizen’s capacity for responsible governance of the economy.

Economic Democracy is Socialism in Disguise

Does ED mean replacing capitalism with socialism? The short answer is, “no, not necessarily.” A better answer is that the question is irrelevant. To understand why, we need to notice two things about capitalism. Every capitalist country has already, because of popular pressure, incorporated aspects of socialism. Social security, universal healthcare, and life insurance were all socialist ideas. Every socialist country, also under pressure, has incorporated aspects of capitalism. China, a socialist country, is one of the largest capitalist systems in earth. The terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ do not capture the complexity, dynamism and syncretic of modern economies. Moreover, capitalism is not a free-floating economic system that looks the same regardless of government policies and social structures. Capitalism in China is very different from capitalism in Japan. Capitalism in Sweden and Finland are very different systems from capitalism in the United States. Modern economies may be better conceptualized as culturally and institutionally influenced inter-weavings of three types of economic structures: private ownership, civic (and non-profit) ownership, and government ownership. 

Another approach to answer the ‘capitalism vs. socialism’ question is to break the economy down into sectors. Different sectors of the economy are already more ‘capitalist,’ more ‘socialist,’ or more ‘civic.’ For example, government planning and ownership seems to be the only way high-speed rail has developed anywhere in the world. China’s government is now developing 13 high-speed railways; the US, largely because of the anti-government influence of price theory, hasn’t developed a single one. On the other hand, China is far behind the US in developing computer Apps. Most Apps come from small firms (including coops) having few limits on experimentation by highly-trained employees, and a culture of open discussion and dense sharing of ideas—often over the Internet. This is pushing China to open more opportunities for citizen exchanges, which seems to work best for APPs, so that they can compete with the US. If the US develops high speed rail, it will probably be a government project similar to China’s. In other words, the mega ‘capitalism versus socialism’ distinction is not very helpful in thinking about how economies operate. A better approach is to ask, ‘which institution or economic lever is best suited for X’; or ‘which combination of economic levers are best for X.’ 

V. Criticisms from the Left

Markets Are Bad

Often people on the Left oppose anything supporting ‘business’ or ‘markets’ as capitalistic, and inherently bad for workers and communities. Yet, markets existed before capitalism, and Marx argued there would be a role for markets after capitalism. Markets are a kind of game (with real stakes) designed to induce competition for the purpose of increasing efficiency in making something, or increasing diversity among products. Markets have winners and losers, just like games. Markets also don’t determine what kind of culture or institutions design them. Markets did not require slavery and colonialism, and there is nothing that requires markets to give winners huge rewards and losers little or nothing. I suspect that people who object to using markets to promote social justice are not so much opposed to competition or diversity in products as they are opposed to the US structure and culture of capitalism, which shapes how we experience markets in daily life. 

To imagine markets as capable of advancing social justice, one might think about how competition and diversity among products and services could be used to promote progressive values, and how market rules might be designed to not harm workers and communities. Further, many of the structures erected under capitalism can potentially help move society beyond capitalism. Labor pension funds, for example, have been a mainstay of luxury housing and business finance generally. With enlightened labor leadership, they could become a mainstay for building civic oriented business and affordable housing. On a global scale, labor pensions could be a force against low road labor and environmental standards. Redirecting these investments has to be done responsibly so that workers don’t lose their retirement income. This would require the creation of socially progressive investment firms that monitor companies and steer investments–using some of the tools that today’s investment firms created, but with a different set of goals and values. These values will necessarily include profit/loss statements (to protect workers’ savings for retirement), but profit/loss is only one of many criteria, and not necessarily the most important criteria for investment. Cooperative businesses in Mondragon, Spain, for example, consider firms that hire at-risk young people at zero profit to be more beneficial for overall community well-being (preventing crime and drug dependence) than some other firms that earn 20 percent returns. Similarly, workers and communities can be organized to put their savings into banks (or credit unions) that have progressive and participatory investment policies. Public companies, owned by stockholders (sometimes in the millions), can also be organized to change leadership and direction of the companies—similar to how political campaigns are organized. And, as discussed earlier, items for sale on the market can carry a bar code on their label with a link to the producer’s treatment of workers, environmental practices, financial backers, and so on. That way, consumers can be organized to promote pro-worker and pro-environmental company policies through the market itself. Global capitalism has created, in its avarice, structures for global monitoring, investment, and distribution that can be used to undo inequality when redirected with different goals and leadership. 

There is in the US a growing movement of small businesses, community development corporations, small investors, and local governments actively pursuing ways to make markets work for ordinary workers, communities, and the earth’s sustainability. The American Sustainable Business Council, for example, has grown to 250,000 businesses (similar in size to the US Chamber of Commerce). 

Technology is Bad for Workers and Communities

Technology, like markets, is often seen by the Left as undermining community and workers well-being. It often does. But, technology need not be utilized this way. Earlier I noted that Marx, late in his life, revised his theory of capitalism’s end. (A compilation of his notes was published as “Grundrisse” in 1939, but was not available in English until the 1970s.) In Grundrisse, Marx foresaw that science and technology would eventually obviate the need for human labor, making his productivist labor theory of value obsolete. He sketched a few implications, none of which he lived long enough to develop. One was that corporate profits would decline for long periods because underemployed workers would suppress demand for goods and services. Jumping off of this, some economists persuasively contend that capitalism today is characterized by long periods of “slow growth,” punctuated by short bursts of energy following new inventions in science and technology. Marx noted that productive capacity would increase dramatically, creating the social capability of satisfying basic human needs, but capitalist culture (greed) would deny needy people their rightful share of the rewards of productivity. A striking insight from Grundrisse, given that it was written in the late 1800s, was that science and technology is the product of “social knowledge”: the cumulative result of the cultivation of human’s critical thinking and awareness through families, schools, practical experiments, and discourse. If you think about machines run by computer software, the software is based on the accumulated experience of many machine operators translated into machine language. The code can be improved continuously based on further experience and insights simply by updating the software, without having to retrain perhaps thousands of human machine operators. The cost savings are tremendous, as is the ability to continuously innovate. A current example of production through social knowledge was the development of LINUX, the powerful free operating system created through online collaboration among thousands of engineers from around the world. The software was designed as “open source” precisely to allow anyone to contribute their ideas and to block corporate control of the product. At first, big corporations tried to compete with LINUX, but they gave up. No private corporation could compete with the brilliance and effectiveness of so many contributors sharing and debating ideas. Nor was there a conceivable way of paying all of the contributors accurately for their individual contributions. Social knowledge, free and open collaboration from anywhere, is by far the most dynamic productive force in human history. It is the material basis for whatever “system” transforms capitalism, because capitalism, with private ownership and patents, holds such broad social cooperation back. Marx speculated that as the role of social knowledge became dominant, capitalism would become obviously obsolete to society. We can imagine that given Marx’s revised theory, he would have abandoned his early idea of workers seizing “the means of production” as the path to revolution, since the means of production were no longer factories but social knowledge–which is not privately owned to begin with.

I argue, following this line of thinking, that the ability of social knowledge to develop is intimately tied to the ability of democracy to develop, especially in the area of economic decision-making. The key to strengthening social knowledge is a strong, inclusive, and participatory civil society, e.g., media, education, and culture as experienced through organizations including unions, schools, civic-businesses, families, and local governments. 

The US is on an opposite path, replete with examples of private appropriation of socially produced goods, and the exploitation of social knowledge. Walmart made its fortune by constructing “superstores.” The stores were designed to be within a 20 minute drive of at least 600,000 people. What made their strategy possible was the federal highway system and the massive subsidies government provides to the auto, oil, and gas industries. Walmart doesn’t pay the public back for using the public’s investment in cars and highways, nor do our laws force them to do so. Walmart also put many thousands of small businesses, such as local hardware and clothing stores, out of business through bulk purchasing and offering price discounts to consumers. Many decent jobs in small businesses were lost, and bad jobs at Walmart expanded. Walmart was a predator on small businesses. Had small hardware and bookstores organized cooperatively, they too could have obtained better prices for their supplies and offered competitive prices, and probably stayed in business. Similarly, computers and the Internet were developed over decades in university labs funded by the federal government. Amazon relies on the Internet for its entire platform, but Amazon doesn’t reimburse the public for creating the Internet. Ninety-seven percent of Facebook’s profits come from selling costumer’s data to advertisers, yet none of those sales are taxed. The same goes for Google. These online platform companies are also predators on small retail businesses such as bookstores.

Yet, these Internet platform companies could be taxed on data sales; workers and communities could be organized to bargain with them over prices and benefits the same way that labor unions bargain over wages. Social entrepreneurs could also create value-oriented platform companies to compete with them. The more decisive and needed transformation, what will enable different corporate regulation and taxation, is for the broad population to understand that these companies are unfairly profiting off of the publics’ creation of value all along the line. Government and civic investments in human development is the main source of profit in science and technology (including in the pharmaceutical and medical industries). It’s not just workers in factories whose “surplus value” is being stolen, the contributions of all people who pay taxes or educate children are being siphoned off to benefit the new “robber barons” of science and technology. Rip offs like those just described will continue until the public gains a different understanding of where value comes from in knowledge-driven modern industries. If the Left’s notion of “class struggle” is narrowly confined to traditionally defined workplaces, rather than taking on corporate exploitation of the entire government and civic edifice that creates new science and technology, then the Left will be less and less able to challenge the firms and institutions shaping the economy. In fact, that’s already been happening. 

Martin L. King focused on modern technology and science more than fifty years ago. He argued, in the spirit of ED, that science and technology should not be used for militarism or private gain at the expense of the poor. King saw the benefits that science and technology could bring, but only if America changed its values. Failure to use these new technological capacities for the people, in King’s words, causes, “unnecessary suffering.” King put building the bonds of community (“brotherhood” or “beloved community,” his words for civil society) at the center for remaking society, and making the most of science and technology:  

“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”   

This is good advice for rebuilding our economy.