I confess to being very frustrated these days that amidst the greatest crisis since the Great Depression, the progressive movement may miss the opportunity to educate and organize the American people to create a more just and humane society. There is a danger that progressives will become so enthralled with the historic election of the first African American President and relieved that conservatives no longer control the White House that we will fail to press the case for “change” beyond what President Obama has articulated or is able to deliver. The New Deal was not simply passed because FDR was convinced that something different needed to be done; the New Deal became a reality because the people made him do it! With that lesson in mind, progressives must articulate a program and build a movement for the reform and transformation of this nation.
I do not profess to be a great thinker in terms of articulating a progressive vision for change. I leave that to my more learned friends/associates. As an activist and organizer, my view of the necessity for change is grounded in the analysis laid out in the Preamble to the National Black Political Agenda, adopted in Gary, IN, in 1972: “The American system does not work for the masses of our people, and it cannot be made to work without radical change. (Indeed, this system does not really work in favor of the humanity of anyone in America.)” The Gary Declaration indicted the Capitalist political-economy as a system, which left unchecked, produced riches for a few and misery for many in this society. Nothing more than the reckless, irresponsible, self-aggrandizing, greed driven and corrupt behavior of the bandits on Wall Street illustrates this point.
But this current crisis is not an aberration. Time and time again in various eras of American history we have witnessed the avaricious behavior of “captains of industry,” “robber barons,” and the “rich and the super-rich.” And, time and time again the progressive forces have had to rein in and regulate Capitalism and fight for policies to expand opportunities for working people, the middle class and the poor. At every turn, the conservative forces have resisted efforts at reform, arguing instead that “the market” must be left alone to solve the problems of the people. Lest the nation continue to suffer from historical amnesia, it is important that progressives seize this moment to educate the public about the incredible contributions of the liberal-left-progressive movement in advancing the cause of the vast majority of ordinary people in this country. For far too long we have been on the defensive with “liberal” and “left” being stigmatized by the conservatives as dirty words in the political dialogue.
A good place to launch the offensive is to counter the drive towards greater privatization of public institutions, which has been a cornerstone of the conservative agenda in the most recent period. We must vigorously reaffirm the value of the “public space,” public education, public hospitals, public housing, public service jobs, not because we are proponents of “big government,” but because the public space functions as a great equalizer in a Capitalist political-economy. Public institutions, agencies and programs help to ensure that all of the daughters and sons of all the people have access to the basic necessities irrespective of distinctions of income.
Another crucial idea which must be elevated at this juncture is the concept of “social responsibility,” the notion that every sector of society, including business and corporations, has a responsibility to promote and attend to the “common good” as opposed to simply pursuing and protecting one’s own narrow self-interest. When I ran for President as an independent candidate in 1992, I campaigned on the idea of a “socially responsible economy.” I pushed the idea that plants which had been an organic part of a community could not just shut their doors and move elsewhere without adequate notice and a plan to ameliorate the suffering of the workers and the affected community. Apparently UE revived this concept in forcing a runaway plant in Illinois to at least pay a reasonable severance to the workers.
In the current climate, we should demand that the values and principles of a socially responsible economy be applied. Why should nationalization of the banks be off the table when tax payer dollars are being poured in by the trillions to cajole and beg financial institutions to lend again? Why should the bandits who created a crisis that caused the collapse of the domestic and global economy be given “incentives” to behave responsibly? At a minimum the Executives who were at the helm of the offending companies should be fired and the institutions nationalized, even on an interim basis as was the case in Sweden some years ago. Why shouldn’t there be some kind of public bank with branches throughout the nation to compete with private banks in serving the interest of the public? There should also be a dramatic expansion of non-traditional commercial institutions like credit unions and micro-credit lending structures to empower poor and working people to improve the quality of life in their communities.
We should not be intimidated by the new “red baiting” scare tactics of rightwing ideologues who are warning that President Obama and the Democrats are moving the country towards “Socialism” or the “Europeanization” of the economy. On the contrary, we should be borrowing ideas from Scandinavia, Western Europe, China, Japan, Cuba, Brazil, anywhere ideas might be found that can improve the quality of life for working people. For example, there is a strong correlation between the existence of a vibrant labor movement and unions in various countries and an enhanced quality of life for working people. Much of the vastly superior social safety net enjoyed by people in Western Europe was inspired by Socialist and labor movements.
Accordingly, it is imperative that the progressive movement prioritize strengthening the labor movement. This means holding President Obama and the Democrats to their pledge to pass the Employee Freedom of Choice Act which would make it much easier for workers to organize to become part of a union. Moreover, the progressive labor agenda needs to resurrect ideas like community-working ownership as an option, backed by the government, when plants decide to abandon communities. Some variation of community-worker ownership should even be on the table in the discussions about the bail out of the automakers. Similarly, progressives should demand that President Obama commit to the concept of a “full employment economy” as proposed in the Hawkins-Humphrey Bill passed in the 60’s. Finally, in Japan, a Capitalist country, there are not only caps on executive compensation, there is a ratio between what top executives can make in relationship to the lowest paid workers. Our labor agenda should certainly include fighting for the enactment of a similar concept in the U.S.
President Obama is to be commended for championing the cause of universal health care. However, most progressives would agree that the approach he is proposing falls far short of getting at the problem of the huge administrative costs that go to insurance companies in a profit driven multi-payer system. Now is the time to intensify the education and organization of the American people to support a single payer type system as envisioned in Congressman John Conyers’ United States Health Insurance Act.
Beyond President Obama’s agenda, progressives must also advance more ambitious proposals for change. At the end of his life, Martin Luther King was pointing in that direction when he offered a blistering critique of the American Capitalist system: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” King was not only opposed to the war in Viet Nam, he was demanding the creation of a system that placed the interests of people above profit and property. Consistent with the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dr. King was advocating an Economic Bill of Rights to guarantee an annual income, housing, education and healthcare to every American as a basic human right.
Unfortunately, Dr. King was gunned down before the Poor People’s Campaign he was planning could dramatically introduce these ideas to the American public. The Obama presidency opens the political space for this and other reform and transformational initiatives to be injected into the dialogue/debate about the future of this nation in an hour of grave crisis. Now is the time for the progressive movement to act and act boldly. As Martin Luther King also proclaimed, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.