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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 class?

June 1, 2011, 12:00 am

White House advisor Van Jones worked to bring class and economic justice issues to the national spotlight, but ultimately resigned amid controversy around his past activism.
Credits: Kasey Baker

Indeed, for progressive writers and policymakers to focus on economic justice as opposed to “issues” 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 doesn’t extend very far beyond the circle of educated, relatively well-off, wonky types who can access and engage with it. That is, it’s 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 isn’t 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.  

It’s 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 won’t 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 aren’t criticisms. They are a reality. Groups that were built for traditional electoral politics, lobbying and collective bargaining can’t turn themselves -- nor should they -- into instruments of direct action challenging the status quo.  

Yet thus far, progressives by and large haven’t 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 it’s 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 didn’t 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.

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