By means of introduction, let me tell you a bit about National People’s Action. In addition to our training and consulting work to build a strong affiliate network, policy analysis and big ideas work, we run three national campaigns, though our affiliates are active in others as well. Our three national campaigns are the Housing Justice Movement which is organizing to preserve and create social housing in America, the Immigrant and Worker Justice Campaign that is active on city, state and national issues of inclusion and equity, and the Showdown in America Campaign that is in a major fight to win accountability and transparency in the financial system. Together, these campaigns and our affiliates are developing our vision, roadmap, and campaign for a new economy.
I want to start by reflecting on the state of the different mobilization movements such as the right to organize/union movement, immigrant rights movement, health care movement, climate change movement, anti-war/peace movement, and financial reform movement. For each of these issues, there’s a set of organizations that can really mobilize. They each saw an important opportunity to move some important policies forward in 2009: the Employee Free Choice Act, climate change treaties, major health care reform, and so on. They all ran national issue campaigns over the last year, and they were all disappointed in the outcome of those campaigns. They either had to give up hope for now that something truly decent was going to pass out of Congress, or they were disappointed that nothing was able to pass last year but had hopes going into 2010. I’m not sure what is going to happen by the end of this year, but by April everyone in these different movements is likely to be seriously disappointed with the pace of reform.
There were a number of reasons why nothing is moving, but I’d say one major reason is that we each waged our campaigns on our own. For example, the health care movement built a big tent, and they brought a lot of people out. But it wasn’t like everybody was “all in” on the health care fight or on any of these other fights. Of course, there were a lot of organizations and networks and unions that participated in several of these national issue campaigns, but we weren’t doing big coordinated efforts to mobilize together across movements last year. But now I think we’re at a point where we could actually turn those disappointments around, where we can turn these different issue campaigns into something bigger.
When I travel around the country and meet with the different organizations that are affiliated with National People’s Action (NPA), I see people who have a lot of energy to organize. These are regular grassroots folks that we’re talking about, and they’re not feeling that disappointment as despair. They’re taking that disappointment and asking, “So what do we have to do to win?” The soil is rich; it’s not depleted. That’s led us at NPA to think about how can we play a part in creating a frame and a story that would allow some of these seemingly disparate movements to begin to work together.
At NPA, our strategy is to mobilize to and run sustained pressure campaigns and actions that force negotiations with people who have the power to make decisions. We don’t limit ourselves to just pressuring elected officials. In this day and time, we need to target corporations. If you had to distill the Right’s message, it’s “Big government is the problem.” It’s a really basic idea (wrong as it turns out) but definitely succinct. On the left and in the progressive world, we tend to be a little more complicated in how we frame things. We usually take more than three or four words to describe what’s wrong (more like three or four books). But if we had to put out our message in equally succinct words, it’d be “Big corporations are the problem.” Those five words capture the idea that because of corporate power and all of the money that they’ve spent in Congress and in cities and states across the country, we really don’t have a functioning democracy. NPA is framing our national conference in May with “Reclaim our Democracy” because we need to reclaim our democracy from the corporations that have stolen our democracy, our money, and our economy from us. Leading up to that conference, we’re planning a variety of actions based on the “Showdown in Chicago” model to force big banks – in particular Bank of America and Wells Fargo – to negotiate with us. Those actions will be happening at the Bank of America annual meeting in North Carolina, at the Wells Fargo annual meeting in San Francisco, on Wall Street and in other cities.
We think that the different movements can come together to target the big corporations that have gotten us into this mess that we’re in today. So we’re trying to figure out what movements are in the same place as we are, what other movements are interested in joining forces to mobilize and negotiate. We’re not into symbolic marches; we want to do actions that can actually force negotiations. Our sense is that a lot of other people are coming to a similar conclusion about the need to work together. What if the health care people started marching with the immigrants and the unions started marching with the climate change people? We’re back in a place that we haven’t seen for more than ten years, since the WTO and anti-globalization protests, where multiple movements were open to working together and were turning out sizable numbers of people. We need to take advantage of this opportunity.
I know you’ve been thinking about what we can learn from the Populist Movement that took place in the United States in the 1880s. Can you talk about the lessons you’ve been drawing from that movement?
There are a couple things that I’ve been drawing from the Populist Movement, particularly from a book written by Lawrence Goodwyn. He talks about the conditions for the development of a major social movement. One of them is he says that you don’t automatically get a big national movement when times are hard. By itself, that’s not a sufficient condition for a movement. Also, having a clear platform (which is what we normally do on the left) is not a sufficient condition.
You have to create a political culture that actually injects spirit, discipline and energy. This political culture plus hard times plus a clear platform are the conditions you need to create the ground for a movement to emerge. We can look at the Populist movement and the People’s Party as examples of a time when people were able to create this combination of conditions, forge a movement, and have millions of people acting together for serious change.
Goodwyn talks about the process of democratic movement-building that took place in the Populist Movement in four stages. First, there was the creation of autonomous institutions where new ideas that run counter to the prevailing authority can develop, a development which – for the sake of simplicity – he describes as “the movement forming.” And we have a lot of that kind of work in this moment. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen the formation of institutions focused on organizing and providing an autonomous space that runs counter to the prevailing political narrative.
The second stage in the movement-building process is the creation of a “tactical means to attract masses of people.” Now, this is a big stumbling block for organizers in this moment. Haranguing doesn’t attract masses of people. Even our traditional style of disciplined door-to-door and congregation-by-congregation organizing can only bring together a certain critical mass of activists, but – even in the best of cases – we only reach a tiny fraction of the population of a neighborhood or a city. Of course, the sad truth that we’ve learned over the last couple of decades is that you don’t actually need a majority to influence politics. You only need an organized minority. But we actually do need to organize masses of people if we want to impact change on a more serious scale. The development of the Internet and institutions like MoveOn.org have created the possibility of recruiting masses of people. Shifting to that scale of politics is a transformative question in the community organizing field right now. Small has been beautiful for a long time; now we want figure out how to act on a truly bigger scale while preserving the dynamic political culture that we have carefully nurtured and rooted in the power of grassroots leadership.
If we can make a break-through on this question of scale, we can move toward what Goodywn describes as the next stage in movement-building which is the “achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis,” in other words the movement educating people on a mass scale. In the Populist movement, they did this by developing economic cooperatives which helped people grow politically. That education manifested on many levels, from the analysis of why they were necessary to the experiences of building them. In many places, the cooperatives had a really hard time acquiring credit, and they had to fight with the railroads and the banks. This was political education in real time for people. It’s that kind of process – of trying to do something that you should be able to do and not being able to do it because these institutions are holding you back that is the most deeply radicalizing. That happened in the Civil Rights Movement too, where people were radicalized by being prevented from doing something that they should have been able to do, like sitting at a lunch counter or sitting on a bus. They tried to do those things, and they got held back. That was the basis for new innovations in the movement, like the Children’s March in Birmingham. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t start out saying, “Let’s march out all the kids and get them all arrested.” But as all the adults tried to do what they should have been able to do and got arrested, this new strategy emerged. And it ended up being quite a radicalizing and formative step for the movement, to have children take those risks and be treated the way they were. So I think we need to take those kinds of actions today. We have to stop doing symbolic marches, and instead we should start doing what we want to do in the world like trying to build our own neighborhoods. And when people get stopped from doing what they should be able to do, that’s going to be really radicalizing for masses of people.
The fourth stage that Goodwyn identifies in the movement-building process is the “creation of an institutional means whereby the new ideas shared by the rank-and-file of the mass movement can be expressed in an autonomous political way.” So this would look like a national campaign with a transformative demand. In the Populist movement, their transformative demand was for a new basis for the currency of the United States and a new way to distribute credit outside of the Eastern banks. At the time, in 1890, it was radical to demand something like that. In a way, they achieved their vision because that idea was the foundation for the Federal Reserve system and the elimination of the gold standard. Today, we need to do some more thinking about what our transformative demands could be. What is a fundamental demand that could be very transformative with far-reaching implications for the U.S. economy, like, “Corporations should not be people.” What we need to avoid is very abstract ideas like, “What we want is a worker’s democracy;” I don’t even know what that means really. We need a concrete demand that is somewhat inconceivable, but at least 1% conceivable. So we’re asking everybody, “What is your transformative demand? And what can we do right now that radicalizes people?” What we’ve settled on for the interim is that we need to fight with the banks. You don’t have to go through Congress to try to get Bank of America to stop foreclosing on people. You can go to Bank of America to get Bank of America to stop foreclosing on people. We can go to Bank of America and Wells Fargo and say, “Stop financing payday lending. Stop foreclosing on people. Stop breaking the budgets of cities and states with these interest rate swaps. And start doing X, Y and Z.” We can put some intermediate demands on the table telling the banks what they should do that would help our economy and rebuild our communities. But in order for it to actually be radicalizing, lots of people have to be involved. So, therefore, we need lots of people in the streets doing these bank actions next month.
You can tell you’ve achieved the kind of transformative political culture that we need when you have two things. First, do the people who join the movement because that movement helps them develop individual self-respect? Having the ability to act, to have a say in your life and to have a say over the institutions that control it, that’s profoundly human. If you don’t have power, you can’t really feel self-respect. Movements should provide people the space to be powerful in a very individual way, and it should help them regain their individual self-respect. I think that’s the reason why people join organizations, because they feel like they’re going to regain some self-respect. The second point is on a more collective side; it’s collective self-confidence. We need to build organizations that have the possibility of winning and are therefore self-confident. Organizations should feel like they can develop a strategy, execute that strategy with discipline and win – or at least win benchmarks along the longer road. If an organization doesn’t have self-confidence, people will drop out of it pretty quickly. We can use those points as litmus tests for the political culture of our organizations: Do people develop individual self-respect through our work? Do we have collective self-confidence? Do we have a political culture that will win?
How do you integrate your left politics into the organizing work? Why do you see organizing as a central method for left people to use?
I’m quite committed to fundamental change in America, change that will allow us to actually realize the unachieved promise of America. This could be a country where people vote and actually have their say about things, where we’re not subject to tyranny. But today we are subject to tyranny. I would call the control that multinational corporations have over the U.S. government a form of tyranny, just like I would call the English government’s colonial control of America tyranny. But I came to understand a while ago that it’s a long road to ge