Are Well-Off Progressives Standing in the Way of a Real Movement for Economic Justice?
Source Dave Anderson
Date 11/05/24/12:28
AlterNet / By Alyssa Battistoni
Are Well-Off Progressives Standing in the Way of a Real Movement for
Economic Justice?
Many progressives are affluent and well-educated. Does their elite
status stand in the way of a movement to fight attacks on the working

OVER THE PAST few years, itís become an article of faith among
progressives that weíre living through a second Gilded Age -- you
know, an era in which great fortunes accrue to powerful business
leaders and institutions and the nationís wealth is concentrated at
the very top. In the past few months, as Republicans have proposed
budgets that would cut taxes still further on the backs of the middle
and working class, progressives have hammered away at the statistics
-- like that the top 1 percent of Americans hold 34.6 percent of the
nationís wealth; the bottom 90 percent, just 26.9 percent.

But the growth in inequality and decline of the middle and working
class, though exacerbated by Bush administration economic policies,
isnít a recent phenomenon -- itís been in progress for decades. Which
begs the question: why on earth did it take so long for the Left to
take notice? How did we end up with inequality reaching levels not
seen since before the Depression without waging anything approximating
a real fight against it? Surely the trends of decreasing social
mobility and increasing social stratification in the supposed ďland of
opportunityĒ call for serious resistance -- where has it been? As
thoroughly reprehensible as the Rightís slavishness to wealth and
power is, the fact that it took a financial meltdown for economic
justice to even begin to replace welfare reform on the political
agenda suggests progressives need to do a bit of navel-gazing.

By now it should come as no surprise that most Democratic politicians
are more responsive to the interests of more affluent voters than to
the working class, even if theyíre nominally better than Republicans
with regard to middle-class interests. But the fact of the matter is
that itís not just Democratic politicians who are operating from a
position of privilege, but the broader progressive leadership. Perhaps
this isnít surprising either, but for a party purporting to defend the
economic interests of the working and middle class -- to say nothing
of the poor (as per usual) -- itís a fatal weakness. By and large, the
people who work at progressive think tanks, media outlets and policy
centers are well-compensated -- some extravagantly so -- and
staggeringly well-educated; they have solid health-care benefits and
401(k)s. As genuinely as they may care about social justice, their
caring is largely based on principle rather than self-interest.

Indeed, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has shown that
voting based on social values has increased among middle-class and
affluent white voters -- making ďWhatís the matter with Manhattan?Ē a
more appropriate question than ďWhatís the matter with Kansas?Ē The
answer is, of course, nothing. Thereís no reason people should vote
based on economics rather than social issues, or vice versa. And yet
the distinction does matter when it comes to questions of economic
justice -- itís harder to let wage stagnation slide when itís a fact
of life rather than a line on a graph.

While the makeup of the progressive leadership is a symptom of the
decline of the working class rather than its root cause, itís a
symptom that perpetuates the disease. Built around often-competing
values of technocratic policymaking and social equality, progressives
have typically sought the latter via redistribution in the form of
taxes and ďsmartĒ policy measures rather than trying to make the
economic model itself more equitable. We're starting to see the
limitations of a technocratic approach to building an essentially
charitable welfare state, but by now we've already ceded so much
ground that any attempt to bring the conversation back to the
structure of the economy itself is labeled as crazy socialist

Indeed, for progressive writers and policymakers to focus on economic
justice as opposed to ďissuesĒ like education or health care is to run
the risk of being seen as an unreconstructed lefty obsessed with
class, a decidedly unfashionable position these days. A case in point
may be Van Jones, who was always bringing class and economic justice
into the national conversation, but got dropped like a rock when his
history of radical activism came under scrutiny. Safer by far to be a
clever wonk -- knowledgeable, witty, able to deploy charts and
statistics on whatever topic dominates the news cycle any given day.

But while that work is important and many progressives do it
exceedingly well, it doesnít extend very far beyond the circle of
educated, relatively well-off, wonky types who can access and engage
with it. That is, itís not going to result in a progressive movement
with the power to fight back against the efforts of corporations and
the wealthy to make the structure of the economy ever more favorable
to their interests.

And to be sure, any attempt to truly tackle the injustice of our
current economic system will require movement building and organizing.
The political power of the wealthy is immense, and the waning of union
power has left little in the way of institutions that can defend the
interests of the nonrich. But advocacy from the comfortable position
of the liberal establishment on behalf of the working class isnít
going to get the job done; the push needs to come from the people
whose lives are directly affected. Indeed, the reason things like
career pressures, blogosphere culture, and pet policies of the
progressive middle class matter at all is that the Democrats no longer
have a working-class base with the power to push for economic justice.

Itís not exactly news that the demise of unions is a major factor in
the decline of the middle and working class, nor that what remains of
organized labor is ill-suited to launching a truly transformative
campaign. As former SEIU executive Stephen Lerner writes,

Unions with hundreds of millions in assets and collective bargaining
agreements covering millions of workers wonít risk their treasuries
and contracts by engaging in large-scale sit-ins, occupations and
nonviolent civil disobedience that inevitably must overcome court
injunctions and political pressure in order to succeed. The same is
true for many progressive and civil rights groups that receive
significant funding from corporations. Electorally focused groups have
worked too hard to risk losing political access.

These arenít criticisms. They are a reality. Groups that were built
for traditional electoral politics, lobbying and collective bargaining
canít turn themselves -- nor should they -- into instruments of direct
action challenging the status quo.

Yet thus far, progressives by and large havenít done the serious work
of building new organizations and institutions to replace unions in
protecting the interests of poor and working-class Americans in their
stead, nor to support groups that can challenge the status quo.

But itís not too late to build a real movement against neoliberal cuts
and in favor of a more just and equitable economy. Recent events offer
a vision of a possible new direction: the most exciting activism the
Left has seen in decades didnít take place on the Mall or Capitol
Hill, but rather, in places -- Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio -- where
drastic anti-union proposals spurred thousands of citizens to come
together over issues of mutual concern.

The recession is making people from different backgrounds and walks of
life realize that the challenges they face are structurally similar;
that not only blue- but white-collar jobs have been degraded and
outsourced, and in fields from administration to academia the jobs
that remain are increasingly insecure, contingent, and contractual.
The looseness and spontaneity of these reactions speaks to a growing
energy without an effective outlet, suggesting that progressives need
to think about how to better support grassroots organizing, encourage
experimentation with new forms of organizing, and create a connected
but independent network of diverse organizations and campaigns
chipping away at the powers that be.

I sometimes suspect that some progressives see President Obamaís
decision to leave community organizing for Harvard Law as validation
of policy and legal approaches to tackling injustice over
movement-building. But Obamaís career trajectory is actually a case in
point for why the Left canít be led primarily by progressives with
middle-class backgrounds and elite educations, even if theyíre
genuinely concerned with social justice. Organizing is hard work, and
it takes a long time. It canít be done by people who have the option
of leaving for greener pastures; it has to be done by people who are
embedded within and committed to the communities theyíre organizing
for the long run.

Because one thing is for sure: a movement consisting of middle-class
supporters with a vague commitment to social justice will not succeed
in addressing the root causes of its decline on its own, and it will
certainly not succeed in addressing -- or perhaps even in identifying
-- the issues that plague the poor and working class. As Vivien
Labaton and Gara Lamarche of the Atlantic Philanthropies argue in the
American Prospect, "Too often, debates unfold without the voices of
those most affected informing them. To win the message wars and, more
important, to make the strongest case possible for change, we need to
put those voices front and center.Ē

Figuring out how to do this -- how to expand leadership and build a
new type of movement that can not only lend power to progressive
politics but help form and shape it -- is perhaps the most important
challenge facing the American Left today.

Alyssa Battistoni is a writer and graduate student in geography and
environment at Oxford University.

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