Editor’s note: The following exchange is between 33-year-old organizer Yotam Marom and 82-year-old George Lakey, whose activism, organizing and training spans over 50 years.
I remember sitting at the small round table in your kitchen, with tea you had just made. It was Spring, and light was coming in through the window above the sink, where you were bustling around as you often do. We talked about life, work, politics. You were excited about something or other — maybe your “How We Win” book tour, or something I was up to, or a new trend of growth in the movement like the Democratic Socialists of America or Sunrise. I’m always mystified by how genuinely excited you are about things young people are doing. I think it’s part of what attracts so many of us to your kitchen table.
I think you had recently turned 82, so we were talking about your age. I like to joke that you’re now only now entering your prime. (Even as we speak, you are on a 40-city book tour, no big deal.) Between your family genes and your own stubborn goodwill, you’ve probably got another 40 years in you.
It might have been after an aside about your age that you said something like: “I’m so happy to be here now. There’s no other time in history I’d rather be alive for.”
It feels like I’m standing with my three-year-old daughter on one of those flat escalators slowly churning toward the edge of a cliff…
I don’t know if I thought much of it at the time. Old people say wacky things sometimes, and young people (on a good day) smile along and humor them (though I’m sure that, in reality, most of the time you’re the one smiling along and humoring us). But then I heard you say this again, and again — I even went to one of your book events and you said it there too. In all honesty, it seemed a bit insane to me. The fact that you could feel happy to be alive in this particular historical moment was miles away from how I felt.
Whenever I muster the courage to stop and think about it, I feel pretty unlucky to be alive at this time. I wake up with the sense that we might have a chance to overcome the many political, economic and social crises we’re facing. But climate change makes the stakes completely existential, and puts a time limit on what we can do about it. I live with a quiet dread, a constant sadness at the loss people around the world are already facing, a nagging fear of what’s to come and a sort of ashamed hopelessness about what we can do to stop it.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. It seems that other folks in my peer group, people in our 30s, feel similarly. Younger generations — kids in high school now — are reportedly showing deeper signs of depression.
There’s a line in the opening episode of the Sopranos, where — panning over a hollow, grey suburban life in New Jersey — Tony says: “Lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” It’s a bit harrowing, a guy really framing his whole existence inside the collapse of the American dream, and the bleakness of it all. That line now comes to me often. It feels like I’m standing with my three-year-old daughter on one of those flat escalators slowly churning toward the edge of a cliff, wondering how much more life she’s going to get to live before we get to the edge, what she’ll get to see, what she’ll miss, what happens to her, and after her, if anything.
So, George, your feeling that this is the best time to be alive doesn’t resonate. But it’s also confusing.
What is the path to power in times like these? What are you seeing, George, that I’m not seeing?
Part of what is depressing to me about this particular time in human history is that our movements are, unfortunately, not prepared for the task ahead. Our labor movement has been in collapse for decades. We have no serious political power or parties of our own to wield it at a national scale. Even our most massive demonstrations are eclipsed by the average attendance of a football game. On a good day, I can see that movements are on the rise, that we are contending for political power in a way that is actually ground-breaking, that we are building institutions, getting better and sharper. Some days, I can almost taste a Green New Deal, imagine a world in which black lives really matter, see the border wall collapse before my eyes, feel the beginnings of a social democracy. But most days I think: too little, too late.
And that’s where the confusion sets in: You’ve been around for so many of the movement moments I envy! You were one of the trainers for 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, were part of the movement against the war in Vietnam and everything that circled it, the nuclear disarmament movement, and almost everything between then and now. You’ve witnessed entire decades in U.S. politics where millions of people regularly took the streets, where massive cultural change took place, where huge layers of the population were politicized, where it looked like there might even be a revolution. And yet, here we are, in the midst of a crisis perhaps deeper than human beings have ever faced, knowing that movements are our only hope, but living at a time in which our movements are not yet ready to organize at the scale of the crisis, and in which there’s a time limit to avert the worst of what’s before us.
What about that could possibly make us lucky to be alive at this time? What is the potential? What is the path to power in times like these? What are you seeing, George, that I’m not seeing?
So I decided to ask you — and ask you again, and again. And what has emerged is this response, for which I’m grateful. May we always be lucky enough to have the vision, backwards and forwards, from mentors like you. May we have the humility to learn from that wisdom and also the arrogance to break the rules when we need to. I’m sure you wouldn’t want it any other way.
I first want to acknowledge your feelings of urgency and anguish. I see the grim picture you’re seeing. I take it personally, as you do. My housemates sometimes see me crying as I read the morning newspaper over breakfast.
Even so, I feel lucky to be alive now because this is the best chance in my lifetime to make really big progressive change. Our difference is partly that I see powerful conditions emerging, under the surface, that open new possibilities. I call them “signals of emergence.” I see evidence, right now, that these trends will give us a chance to gain victories we haven’t been able to reach before in this country.
Please notice that I said, “a chance.” No guarantees. Mine isn’t a new version of the old “scientific Marxism” — I don’t believe in the inevitability of progress. But that’s OK because I am willing to take chances. When, at age 39, I was expected to die from a very nasty cancer, my community and I committed to the chance that I would live.
I’m grateful that I went for it then, and that now I’m part of your community, eager to go for it now. And because I like to argue with you, I’ll point to evidence of conditions emerging that give our progressive movements the chance this time to make decisive change.
The signals of emergence are obscured by the drama of pain, from opioids to floods to shootings to the guy who occupies the White House. In all this high-decibel confusion, the signals of emergence can get lost.
The previous high-water mark: the 1960s-’70s
Let’s compare today with “the ’60s.” The prelude to that decade was kicked off in 1955 by the Montgomery bus boycott, a mass movement of 50,000 black people in Alabama. Although neither political party wanted to touch the civil rights movement in the early ‘60s, we forced major changes.
Victories continued for Chicano and Filipino farmworkers, women, LGBTQ people, elders, mental health consumers, environmentalists, and many other groups inspired to stand up and fight for their rights. The momentum of “the ‘60s” continued well into the ‘70s.
We often needed the drama of direct action in order to arouse the numbers needed for success. When I joined the tiny opposition to the Vietnam War I found it hard to draw attention to something happening in a small country few people had even heard of.
Soon I found myself on a Quaker sailing ship confronting naval gunboats off the coast of Vietnam, one of the dramatic campaigns in 1967 that awakened Americans to the war. The peace movement grew massive and helped force the U.S. to give up its self-appointed mission of replacing the French Empire in running Vietnam.
Millions of Americans in that period took direct action, acting outside the box defined by high school textbooks as the proper place for civic duty: the electoral system. Inspired by the drama of nonviolent direct action, even more millions lobbied and canvassed and drove voters to the polls. It would take thousands of words to describe the progressive victories gained from 1955 to when President Ronald Reagan began the counter-offensive in 1981 by firing the air traffic controllers and breaking their union.
What’s different now?
Much of what discourages your generation is not new. During the ‘60s and ’70s we also faced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, armed militias, and a revival of the Nazi movement. We saw militarization of police departments and police infiltration of social movements. We saw the shooting and killing of students by Mississippi State Police at Jackson State and the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. We even saw assassinations of some of our greatest political leaders, and an all-out war by the police on black organizations and communities. In other countries, the U.S. Empire — run by politicians at home in the interests of the economic elite — was killing millions of people.
In those days of rampant injustice we built mighty movements that forced progressive change. Dick Cluster mischievously titled his book about those movements and the sparking role that had been played by the student sit-ins, “They Should Have Served that Cup of Coffee.”
You and I agree that those movements didn’t change the system deeply enough. This time around, with the climate crisis at our door, we need to go farther. In this letter I’ll focus on what makes that possible, like the signs that the system itself is cracking.
Trends that open the door for a bigger leap forward
I see four new trends that open the door for bigger change than we could make in the 1960s: inequality-led polarization, economic insecurity, decline of federal governmental legitimacy and climate disasters. We also have assets we didn’t have “back in the day.”
1. The two-headed impact of polarization
While traveling on book tours I’ve heard a widespread belief that political polarization keeps us stuck. Intuitively, the claim sounds true. How can a country move forward if everyone’s shouting and no one’s listening?
Historically, however, polarization has a double impact. One is stalemated governments and divided communities. The other impact is a loosening, a setting in motion. My favorite metaphor is a blacksmith’s forge: polarization heats up society, making it malleable.
We’re frustrated and saddened by the first impact of polarization: relationships fracture, racism becomes more overt, violence more frequent.
However, the volatility also makes positive change easier to get. In the polarized 1930s progressive movements got changes they could only dream of in the ‘20s, like unions, labor laws, Social Security, conservation, electricity for millions, bank regulation and better policies for family farmers.
There’s no guarantee that increased volatility will yield changes for the better. In Germany and Italy during the 1920s and ‘30s polarization made fascist outcomes possible.
During those same decades Scandinavian polarization predictably generated fascist growth. Fortunately, the left in those countries navigated the polarization brilliantly, using the volatility to grow mass democratic socialist movements. The result: more individual freedom than Americans have, accompanied by more equality, a stronger social safety net, and higher productivity.
The late black historian Vincent Harding likened history to a river. Remembering my experience on a class V river in West Virginia I think of activism during polarization as white water rafting. In the 1920s and ‘30s the river of history for Germany and Italy, the United States, and the Scandinavians all hit the turbulence of white water. The first two countries capsized. The United States navigated pretty well and made progress. The Scandinavians, with historical advantages and better strategy, made a breakthrough everyone can learn from.
Forward to my lifetime, the 1960s and ’70s: racial, gender, generational and other conflicts created turbulence. Even though we lacked then some assets we have today, we made important gains.
Different now from the 1960s is the economic inequality that’s driving polarization. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal found that political polarization correlates directly with economic inequality. The more inequality, the more polarization. The United States has now become one of the most unequal societies in history.
The 2018 tax law generates even more inequality. That in turn drives more polarization. We can expect, therefore, that the resulting volatility opens more opportunity for progressive change than I’ve experienced in my lifetime.
2. Economic insecurity
In the ‘60s, the United States experienced an overall condition of stable prosperity. Young people in each generation expected to become more prosperous than their parents. Since then we’ve seen the loss of well-paid working class jobs and debt-bondage for those who try to get into the middle class through college. At the same time, a pension crisis looms.
Falling economic security compared with the ‘60s shakes things up. The result: more openness to new ideas and bolder approaches.
Increasingly teachers can’t afford to live in growing cities where they teach. Commuting becomes more difficult – the national engineers’ give the United States a D- grade on infrastructure. The war on immigration makes it even harder to imagine either re-populating emptying towns or re-building the infrastructure.
A dysfunctional health care system fails to control costs, leaves tens of millions uninsured, ignores untold numbers of trauma victims, and has waiting lists for the mentally ill and drug addicted. Some life expectancies are declining. Healthcare bills drive up bankruptcies, destabilizing towns already reeling from loss of jobs.
All these trends hit people of color even harder than white people.
Compare that to the ‘60s when the American dream was still around: Upward mobility was high, especially for white men, and life expectancies were increasing. For us social movement organizers, the situation was daunting: So many people could ignore the value of collective action for change because their individual prospects looked promising.
Upward mobility has declined. The economic dream is fading.
Many express their disappointment and rage by moving away from centrism, opening to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or, on the other hand, voting for the first time in their lives for a socialist, even an elderly Jew from Brooklyn who represents hippie Vermont in the U.S. Senate!
Falling economic security compared with the ‘60s shakes things up. The result: more openness to new ideas and bolder approaches.
3. Decline in government’s legitimacy
In the ‘60s governmental legitimacy was high. When the public was awakened to the scandal of widespread poverty in the wealthiest country on earth, President Lyndon B. Johnson responded with a “War on Poverty” that was met with widespread approval.
At the time I heard civil rights leader Bayard Rustin cynically comment that the War on Poverty was “the first time the United States is going to war with a BB gun.” He was right, but an outlier. Most people had a sunny confidence that, if the federal government chose to solve a problem like poverty, it could do it.
That confidence has largely disappeared, regarding poverty (most national politicians avoid the subject) and a whole lot else. The feds have trouble simply keeping the government open to do basic functions like safety inspections and collecting taxes.
Compared with earlier in my lifetime, the loss of confidence in government makes it easier now to initiate grassroots actions.
Since 2001, the Gallup organization has sought data on how proud Americans are of our country. The polls show pride has been sinking, hitting its lowest point so far in 2019. Of the various aspects measured, pride is lowest in our political system.
Many people nowadays believe there is widespread corruption, prompting presidential candidate Donald Trump to promise to “drain the swamp.” A majority even of Republicans polled believe the economic elite has too much power in governmental policy-making. One poll shows a majority of Americans now believe that ordinary people would “do a better job of solving problems” than elected officials.
Compared with earlier in my lifetime, the loss of confidence in government makes it easier now to initiate grassroots actions, and new technology makes it easier for the actions to spread.
4. Climate –the game changer
I agree with you that this is fundamental. Climate is also linked to the previous trend: government failures further undermine its own legitimacy.
Additionally, the mind-blowing nature of the climate challenge is at last impacting activists who once defined it as a single-issue effort. Now movement leadership is shifting toward those who can hold a bigger picture and design visions to fight for, like the Green New Deal.
The dynamics unleashed by climate change can promote unity in a larger, broader, and more visionary mass movement powerful enough to take on the 1 percent.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow long ago outlined a hierarchy of human needs that prioritized security as well as physiological needs like food. From extreme weather following hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the growth of severe asthma to the epidemic of wildfires, basic human needs for safety are at risk because of government’s incapacity to respond to the climate crisis on the scale needed. The science is clear. To come even close to competency, the federal government would need to respond to the climate crisis the way it did to World War II: an all-out mobilization.
The government can’t deal with climate because the 1 percent vetoes significant action. Its veto power is not new. According to the Princeton University “oligarchy” study, the economic elite was the primary player in governmental policy even before the Supreme Court issued the Citizens United ruling released even more money into elections. That’s why leading Democrats as well as Republicans have refused until now to respond to the climate crisis.
Barack Obama discovered this early in his presidency when he asked then-Sen. John Kerry to develop a climate bill (the Dems being in control of Congress at the time) and Kerry reported back that he couldn’t create a bill his colleagues would support.
While part of the economic elite is doubling down on climate denial, another part is moderating on climate, as reflected in the activity of billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. That split gives permission to Democrats to shift so they can play their traditional “good cop” role in U.S. politics, leaving once again the “bad cop” role to the Republicans.
In that way the Democratic leadership, constrained by loyalty to the elite, can hope to co-opt the growing climate justice movement, as it did with the labor and civil rights movements. It’s worth recalling that the civil rights movement made its greatest gains 1955-65, when it was independent, then slowed to a crawl once embraced by the Democrats.
One Democratic professional politician prominent in his state actually said to me with a cheerful grin, after I called out the Democrats for co-opting movements: “You’re right about what we do, and we’re good at it.”
Climate disasters and the decline of some prejudices mean that divide-and-rule is less available for the establishment’s defense of its dominance.
The traditional U.S. political division of labor is now playing out with climate: the Republicans are deniers while Democratic leadership talks climate and rejects the only proposal before them that takes the crisis seriously: the Green New Deal.
As journalist/activist Bill McKibben says, even Congress cannot suspend the laws of physics. Growing failure on the environmental front produces what political scientists consider a recipe for rapid change and even revolution: the demonstrated inability of a government to solve the basic problems faced by society.
How does all this influence me to say we’re facing the biggest chance of my lifetime to make breakthrough change? The dynamics unleashed by climate change can promote unity in a larger, broader, and more visionary mass movement powerful enough to take on the 1 percent.
In the 1960s and ‘70s we were able to generate sufficient grassroots power to change some laws and policies backed by the 1 percent, but we could not challenge the elite’s dominance. Although the elite was put on the defensive, it was able to use lines of cleavage in our society, especially race, to regain the offensive in the 1980s.
When he was interviewed by the New York Times in 2006 billionaire Warren Buffett described the economic elite’s move as “class warfare,” and he went on to say “…it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
True enough — their counter-offensive launched in the 1980s has been winning victory after victory. The climate crisis is something new; it provides an existential basis for solidarity that did not exist previously. The third “500-year flood” that hit Houston in three years hurt everyone except the very rich, as do the wildfires and floods in the Midwest.
Each crisis impacts different groups differently, but the accumulated impact is felt by all except the class that has vetoed real action for sustainability. (The very rich are currently buying property in New Zealand for their new homes.)
While climate change itself can become a force for solidarity, it comes at a time in which Americans have already reduced the lines of division that were so deep in the 1960s. Even though we are still far from reaching Martin Luther King’s dream, and classism has hardly been touched, the United States is much less racist, sexist, homophobic and elder-intolerant than it was in the ‘60s.
To put it together: Climate disasters and the decline of some prejudices mean that divide-and-rule is less available for the establishment’s defense of its dominance. Many more people are losing confidence that the “masters of the universe” and elected officials are able to protect life and dignity. They are looking to each other for leadership, and we see that in the emergence of more grassroots activism in the last decade. Expect these powerful trends to accelerate.
How to navigate the river
Earlier I mentioned Vincent Harding’s metaphor for history as a long river. Sometimes it moves very slowly and other times quickens to white water. I’ve studied and participated in movements that handled the rapids poorly and drowned, and also movements that absorbed the energy of the white water to navigate successfully.
That’s how I can picture what our successful navigation might look like. I’m not predicting exactly how the river will run this time, or the exact moves we’ll make. I’m describing how I think our paddling might turn out, based on the right moves other movements made in other times and circumstances, and what moves are available to us as we hit the white water.
I picture American activists realizing how much they can learn from their mistakes, rather than repeating them. Organizers and leaders decide to base their moves on evidence-based knowledge, gained through wide use of study groups and training workshops. Movement cultures adopt a focus on “our learning curve.”
This makes quite a difference when it comes to the question of whether to use violence in direct actions. Organizers use the evidence produced by social scientists showing that nonviolent action is much more practical and effective than violence, even for protection. The resulting discipline frustrates our opponents, who are still sending provocateurs into the movement to try to instigate violence and make it possible to shut us down.
Training also helps us build solidarity more quickly. Prior to the 2020s some activists were unwittingly helping out the elite’s divide-and-rule strategy by activists using the “calling out” tactic to respond to oppression dynamics they found in the movement. Resorting to shame-and-blame generated a toxic activist culture in some movements and a sense of scarcity that meant any oppressed group that wasn’t in the limelight at a particular moment was somehow being left out.
However, training organizations like Momentum, Wildfire, and Training for Change grow rapidly to meet the movements’ need to drop old divisive habits.
Activists shift from one-off protests to sustained campaigns. In nonviolent direct action campaigns organizers use a series of escalating actions directed toward deciders who can yield our demand. With campaign strategy activists move beyond “protests” — really just the expression of their opinion — to the sustained series of actions that gains actual wins.
This shift is influenced by the popularity of electoral campaigns by Bernie Sanders and other outliers. Activists watching Sanders’ 2015 espousal of Medicare for All grow into a major policy proposal that occupied center stage in 2019 learned how much it matters to focus on a demand in a sustained way over time.
Even though the mass media still call the campaigners’ dramatic actions “protests,” most organizers move on to the advanced technology of direct action campaigns. The wins support morale and build the spirit of unity. The community that activists experience over time by learning how to struggle together proves an excellent antidote to despair.
In addition to re-discovering direct action campaigns, activists from various movements are learning from the civil rights struggle the “movement power grid.” Multiple local campaigns in the South networked with each other in the 1960s. When one of them needed help or seemed ready for a growth spurt, energy could flow into that one from elsewhere, in the form of organizers, money, “name” leaders.
To cite just two examples, that strength of the grid made it possible for Birmingham in 1964 and Selma in 1965 to shake the national power structure. Alabama, geographically far from Washington, D.C., twice provided the pivot to force national wins!
I see national movement leaders realizing that, instead of calling national marches at this or that place, they can become strategically organic by directing energy and mass to local campaign sites. To use military terms, movement leaders’ shift turns the entire nation into potential “battlefields” instead of relying on the tired destinations of New York City and Washington, D.C. That strategy shift accelerates our struggle.
In fact, back in 2016-17 grassroots activists anticipated the strategy shift when a mass influx showed up in South Dakota at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline; it was the largest assembly of native Americans in decades, and the solidarity stimulated other pipeline fights around the nation.
Sharpening up strategy for struggle isn’t enough
Two other developments add to the sharpened strategy for struggle: linking a network of grassroots “helper groups,” and visioning the society we want. These additional moves are accelerated by the further decline in governmental legitimacy induced by climate disruption.
What mobilizes grassroots helpers is that federal and local governments are responding to climate disasters with money taken from the already-insufficient funding for healthcare, housing, education, immigration support, welfare, and environmental upgrades. Governments prefer this method to taxing the rich (who most benefitted from conditions that led to the climate crisis).
These widening gaps in human services induce people not drawn to direct action campaigns to try to meet needs by expanding co-ops and other direct service initiatives. Their experience, in turn, awakens them to the need for larger institutions that put people ahead of profit. This encourages working class supporters of the right wing to shift their allegiance to the needs of themselves and their neighbors. They increasingly welcome a vision of a society that assures the rights of all for survival and well-being.
The vision breakthrough builds on the Movement for Black Lives’ 2016 platform and the series of initiatives like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Many centrists join the discussion, realizing that neo-liberal, incrementalist Democrats beholden to the rich for campaign cash are simply unable to fight for a viable future.
The vision work and helper networks reinforce each other, encouraging national leaders of the movement of movements to shift their style from “complainers” to “proclaimers” — of a new society.
Both vision and helper networks also help to transfer the legitimacy lost by capitalism and government to the movements for change. The positivity of the vision and helpers offsets the disruptiveness of the increasing number of direct action campaigns demanding major change.
Macro vision-work is turning out to be easier than initially thought. Countries like Scandinavia that were already setting the pace in the climate crisis are known for providing more equality, democracy, opportunity for immigrants, and individual freedom than the U.S. Americans who like to be pragmatic realize it’s sensible to borrow from the Nordic model with its half-century track record of global best practices. After all, the U.S. borrowed Social Security and Medicare from other countries, and a huge majority of Americans learned to count on those “foreign imports.”
Emerging consensus on vision within the movement of movements builds unity, since the vision shows how each of the groups fighting for progressive change can realize their goals in a new America that pushes aside the economic elite fighting to retain its dominance. This vision plays a role in generating something new: a movement of movements that senses the possibility of a power shift.
Climate disruption continues to accelerate the flow of the river. Liberal and progressive politicians continue to move to the left in their policy proposals, and more of them win elections, but the Democrats’ need to retain the party’s main source of financial support and retain the support of the economic elite reduces the centrists’ wiggle room. The really big changes remain stymied.
A people whose only political practice is electoral is at a disadvantage against an elite that plays the dictatorship card.
For the public, however, crisis sharpens the mind. As multiple coastal cities submerge in floods while wildfires rage and pollinating bees disappear, Washington is the target of bitter laughter. I remember in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis when the cover of a mainstream magazine proclaimed in bold letters that “We’re all socialists now.” That’s what’s happening: the bold alternative macro-vision proposed by the movement makes more and more sense to a majority whose belief in Washington has gone beyond cynical.
Writing this now, in 2019, I can’t picture what the endgame of our struggle in the late 2020s looks like — there are too many unknown factors, including how much violence the economic elite might unleash in their attempt to preserve their domination. Even though we know that followers of economist James M. Buchanan would likely push for dictatorship, we can’t know for sure whether the elite will try to rule through presidential decree backed by the military, using the pretext of climate emergency as its excuse.
We do know from the research of political scientists that multiple movements in other countries have gone up against military dictatorships and won through the power of mass nonviolent direct action. Compared with many of those movements, we are arguably better prepared for that struggle.
In fact, knowing now about the possibility of attempted dictatorship down the road reinforces our wide use of direct action campaigns rather than relying only on electoral means to make change. A people whose only political practice is electoral is at a disadvantage against an elite that plays the dictatorship card. Practicing direct action skills along the way makes the public battle-ready if that possibility shows up.
An optimistic view would be that electoral means can implement a power shift in which the economic elite loses its ability to dominate and democracy becomes a reality.
In the 1930s movements of movements pulled off that feat in Sweden and Norway: they used mass nonviolent direct action to make their countries ungovernable by their economic elites while using elections and parliaments to transfer power to the people. The Swedish elite did use the army to try to enforce its will, but the people’s general strike responding to a massacre signaled “game over.”
Mass noncooperation forced the resignation of the Swedish Parliament’s ruling party. The Social Democrats then re-organized the country to set a new standard of justice, equality, shared prosperity, and individual freedom. That would not be a bad goal for the American people.
The signals of emergence
And so, Yotam, this is my picture of how we can make the biggest progress in my lifetime. I’ll italicize the main features.
Four major trends are inequality-led polarization, economic insecurity, decline of federal governmental legitimacy and disasters compounded by the climate crisis. None of these existed in our country’s previous high-water mark, the 1960s-‘70s.
Together, these trends are already beginning to incentivize masses of people to act boldly for change who have not before been in the ranks of self-identified activists. Millions are bringing with them not only their talents and connections, but also their sense of urgency. They see the whitewater ahead; they will want to make it safely through.
The power these millions will generate partly depends on the strategy, skill and learning curve of organizers. We’re now in better shape in those respects than we were in the beginning of the ‘60s. Training is more effective at dealing with dynamics of division, it’s more available, and it’s more easily expanded than it was in those days.
The art of nonviolent direct action campaigning is being de-mythologized and turned into technique. Communications technology makes networking easier and faster. The “movement power grid” becomes available even where defined leaders forget to structure it.
The increase of larger disruption caused by direct action campaigns is offset by a growing network of grassroots helper groups to meet human needs. People are also inspired by the promise that, on the other side of the white water, is a just order — the vision projected by a movement of movements.
The possibility of repressive violence can be met by a combination of new knowledge and training capacity. The dangers faced by the civil rights movement can be met with more confidence than before. Progressive shifts in electoral politics may diminish the use of violence against us but in any case the wins that accumulate through nonviolent direct action campaigns will continue to give heart to the whitewater rafters.
Whether the movement of movements forces the economic elite to give up its dominance, or simply gains major concessions, the resulting changes can be significantly larger for justice and equality than the gains of the 1960s and ‘70s.
For you, me, and everyone who hungers for a fresh start for our country, let’s make this happen.
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Thank you, George and Yotam. I am so grateful for your insight and your hope.
I have worked v hard for Fair Districts PA, as have folks from the League of Women Voters, local Dems, and Indivisible. The teamwork feels really good. Recently, I fell in love with Better Angles because of their skill in training how to talk much more respectfully and effectively with each other.
So I am hopeful, too. My best to you both. Nancy
Thanks for the article, it makes a lot of sense to me. I do believe that non- violent direct action campaigns create “small wins” that add up over time, but we struggle to raise enough money to keep the campaigns strong. Direct action groups compete for perceived available funds and that creates division among us, especially locally. Perhaps creativity in funding structures for people-power movements could be the subject of the next article?
If some how all of the social action groups which are so many can come together as one unified voice all working together. Then we can share all resources both physical and social capitol for this unified purpose and drive a wedged down the middle to open space for big change. Until then we are divide fighting on to many fronts with to little resources.
thank you, Yotam and George, for persisting with each other and co-eliciting these powerful teachings!
George, you continue to inspire and teach me, and I’m grateful for this introduction to Yotam. Like Yotam, I’ve been challenged to understand your hopefulness, George. Yet listening to you and reading your words, has grounded me in what’s possible, what’s emergent when we act from common-ground. Building a movement of movements seems more possible at this moment. Our existential crises demand it.
We are very is inspired and motivated by this. We are seeing the same problems, poverty, maladministration, inequality and lack of attention to climate here in Africa and I strongly believe we need movements of action to challenge the rot
Thank you, George and Yotam!
I agree completely with George, that some existing conditions offer possibilities we haven’t had in my lifetime, either. (I’m 67 years old, and active for social change in the US since my teens.)
Under “economic instability” I would add that the Occupy movement has introduced the analysis and language of the 1%. (Thank you very much, Yotam!) It’s quite commonplace, now, to point to our vast wealth inequality — which wasn’t much discussed, before Occupy Wall Street.
Another advantage we have today is the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. That made it possible for progressives in the West to name capitalism as the major problem, as Naomi Klein has done. I used to get alarmed reactions from colleagues in the peace movement of the 1980s when I said that capitalism itself was behind US militarization. “Oh, we don’t really want to go there,” was the general message, because at the time, anti-capitalist equaled Communist, in the view of most people, and the most prominent Communist country (the USSR) was totalitarian. Today we are much freer to name and attack capitalism as the root cause of most problems. Saying out loud that capitalism could never have happened without racial exploitation, land theft, and colonialism is another step forward. I love the term “racialized capitalism” — that’s it in a nutshell.
The Red Deal is another indication of the growing connections George highlights between people’s movements. This program, emerging from Native nations, states up front that the Green New Deal doesn’t go nearly far enough — that we have to go deep into the issues of autonomy, reparations for slavery and land theft, and extractive industries in order to truly address climate change. YES!
With all that said, I have my own deep fears and doubts about the future. I really wish I believed that progress is inevitable. I envy the Marxists of the 1930s who felt confident that they were on the winning side of history. I can’t be so certain myself. I’m truly worried about a fascist take-over of the US — not only because of the visible, street-level fascism we’re seeing, but even more because of the manoevering in the Right wing to eliminate the electoral system. I’m reading a history of the oil industry (“Annointed with Oil” by Peter Dochuk) which is a very sobering look at the greed, world-wide influence, and ruthlessness of oil multi-billionaires. I wouldn’t put it past them to try to take over the government to protect their interests.
Even so, like George, I take heart in the fact that many people, all over the world, have toppled totalitarian regimes through largely nonviolent struggle already. I hope it doesn’t come to that in the US, and I also don’t think that would be the end of the story.
Progressive activists have a lot of strength in the lessons we have learned already. We have been racking those lessons up at a breath-taking rate! The artists Ricardo Levins Morales and Janna Schneider made a poster of our movements in the US during the 20th Century, in the shape of a tree. (It’s called Cen-tree of Struggle.) The roots and lower trunk are the 1920s and 1930s; the upper trunk and lower branches are the 1960s; and the full canopy of leaves is the 1980s and 1990s. As Ricardo remarked while they were drawing the poster, this truly represents our radical movements — we have become even more diversely active SINCE the 1960s and 1970s! We’ve got a lot of experience to draw on.
It’s not a slam-dunk, by any means, and I still think we’ve got a fighting chance of creating societies where care for one another, respect for differences, meeting the needs of all, and raising powerful children can happen. Let’s keep the ball moving.
An excellent article George, I agree. One point I would like to see added to make clear what we mean by forcing “the economic elite to give up its dominance.” Money as debt is the control instrument of the oligarchy. As long as we allow banks to create deposits society will pay for its own slavery employed to destroy the world for profits that accrue systematically to the wealthiest. Unfortunately some present themselves as fighters against the oligarchy while maintaining a fierce and pointless defense of their power mechanism.
(Risking censure) I see MMT as controlled opposition which appeals by taking elements of money reform, but only in a way that it serves the oligarchy. Anand Giriharadas new book ‘Winners Take All’ exposes elite philanthropy as just that. Real money reform is about removing the main instrument of oligarchic power, what Van Buren called the Money Power. We don’t need to promote a bloody revolution, to dismember the oligarchy. We must introduce a just money system, under which democracy can prevail. It is as simple as changing the way banks keep their books. Any government that does not control the money is controlled by those who do, as the Princeton Study showed us. We were kind of at this point in the late 19th century when farmers and greenback proponents had traveling monetary education shows. They failed, we cannot afford to. http://greensformonetaryreform.org/ https://www.monetaryalliance.org/ https://howwepay.us/ https://internationalmoneyreform.org/
George, it dawns on me also that we need an electoral movement that sweeps the establishment out of power. A mass movement of candidates running for office supported by a mass movement of citizens. https://ourvoiceusa.org/
Money originated as debt is the control instrument of the oligarchy and funds a fierce and pointless defense of their power mechanism. Money reform is about removing the main instrument of oligarchic power. We don’t need to promote a bloody revolution, to dismember the oligarchy, but we must introduce a just money system, under which democracy can prevail. Any government that does not control the money is controlled by those who do. We have a private for-profit money system which is usury; the abuse of monetary authority for personal gain.
Non-violent national organized strikes didn’t work against Cuban paramilitary “limpia” in Nicaragua… And the human rights orgs have abandoned the people that didn’t get killed or flee for their lives.
Sharon Buttry’s point about fundraising and competition is important. My point about polarization has huge implications for all our work, including fundraising. Polarization operates like two giant magnets, one on the left and one on the right, drawing people and resources away from the center toward one pole or the other. As people shift away from centrism/incrementalism their resources become available to movement organizations that speak to them. An example on the left in the electoral arena is the huge amount of small-dollar contributions going to Bernie Sanders. The “business-as-usual” nature of most organizations is to keep going to the same well for additional water, not being aware of the dynamics of polarization and that there are many people newly aligned with them who can actually be asked for money! We address this problem in how organizations stifle their own growth by not going beyond “the usual suspects” (to change metaphors) in the book Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times. The objective reality is abundance. The challenge is to take off the blinders that prevent us from seeing where it is.
Thanks to you both for sharing these insights, questions, experiences. It is very helpful to me as I think about what role I can play in the work now and ahead of us.
Thanks to Betsy Raasch-Gilman for pointing out (in Comments, above) that we have a couple of other things going for us now that I failed to mention. One is that the Occupy movement gave us language to describe the economic elite – the “1 percent” – that supports our ability to describe the reality of class struggle. The other is that the demise of the Soviet Union largely frees U.S. political discourse from the obsession with “the evil of Communism” and enables us to announce ourselves to our families and friends as socialist, if we are. Considering that some polls show an amazing proportion of young people now say they prefer socialism to capitalism, that’s quite a step forward in releasing our inclination to radical change!
The Central American writer of a Comment cautions us that nonviolent nonviolent strikes don’t always work, and I agree. Guarantees are not available for any method of change. Still, we’re left with the statistic developed by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan after studying all national-level mass struggles in the world from 1900 to 2006 (323 campaigns): twice as many nonviolent struggles won as violent struggles! Nonviolent struggle even succeeded in a number of cases in forcing out military dictatorships. For evidence-minded folks, reading their book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” is quite an eye opener.
This is one of the most profound, optimistic articles any activist could read! Kudos to George Lakey.
I humbly, but BOLDLY, propose that the “Movement of Movements” will be a Movement of NONVIOLENCE, where nonviolence becomes the goal, not just a tactic. By making nonviolence the goal, the people of the world can “unite” because the threat of violence and war is reduced.
The long term political goal is for the people in every country to demand that their own government “RENOUNCE WAR.”
Thank you. Peace and Love!
Andre from Global Strategy of Nonviolence
Thanks for the excellent overview of the previous and current situations, from an old guy hoping to achieve the status of an elder.
Here’s a few comments:
First, thanks for the term “climate disruption”; it’s much more powerful and descriptive of the current situation than the usual “climate change”.
Re “Liberal and progressive politicians continue to move to the left”: I suggest that it’s high time to retire the old right/left dichotomy, which is inadequate to properly characterize the complex and multifaceted challenges we face. It also tends to set groups against each other that could more effectively work out their common interests. It reminds me of the old divide and conquer and “let’s you and him fight” technique of oppressors. How can we transcend this trap?
Re “The very rich are currently buying property in New Zealand”. I’ve seen articles on that, describing it as a “bailout” location. This seems to indicate a lack of confidence on their part that they can keep control of the situation.
In addition to the changes you’ve discussed, I see some others that are likely to play roles in the coming decades, and could make it more difficult for social movements to get traction (or in some cases, assist them):
– Our neoliberal economic system is dependent on continual exponential growth. However, it’s exactly this growth dependency that is the cause of climate disruption, massive pollution, and other dysfunctions of industrial capitalism.
– From the 60s through the 80s, a rough balance of power between the West and the Soviet Union kept an uneasy peace. Now we’re facing an evolving competition among multiple players, complicated by growing militarism and an increasingly unstable Middle East, which among other things tends to distract political and economic leaders from giving the climate crisis the attention it deserves.
– The need to move away from fossil fuel usage creates a set of challenges and problems, since the energy density of renewable sources is considerably less. This could create a large set of changes. One example is the amount of energy needed to create and maintain “the cloud” on which much of our communications rely. This could present an opportunity for movements willing and able to use a variety of low energy technologies (see the “Low Tech Magazine” website for possibilities).
– There’s a movement toward “relocalization” of economies and societies, which may be empowered by the energy decline.
Finally, I recommend visiting resilience.org (site of the Postcarbon Institute) for articles relating to the emergence of a future that will be significantly different from what we’re used to. Many challenges and opportunities ahead.
Responding briefly (alas!) to Andre and Don,
Andre, the good news from research into movements that adopt a nonviolent strategy for achieving more justice, equality, freedom is that there is a tendency for a significant number of participants to take a fresh look at their previous assumption that violence must be retained as an option in political life. Their practical experience with the power that strategic nonviolent struggle offers can be an opening door to a fuller commitment to nonviolence. I believe the most effective way to spread greater confidence in the potential of nonviolence is more people trying it out: experience is a great teacher. Although I am a pacifist, I long ago gave up trying to argue people into a morality-based commitment to nonviolence because violence is a paradigm so deeply rooted in most cultures and embedded in patriarchy, statism, imperialism, and classism. Let’s join the great philosopher John Dewey and focus on “learning by doing.” Join with people whose practical challenges can be met with nonviolent tactics and strategy and expand their worldview in that way. I believe it’s the more effective way to shift our world away from violence.
To Don, I appreciate your complicating the picture of what we’re confronting, and that’s something I’ve always loved about joining movements that tackle a specific injustice at a specific moment. My first arrest was for a sit-in against racism: who knew that as the movement developed it would become a Freedom movement, already by 1963 declaring the Washington march to be for Jobs and Freedom (note the addition of class). Movement development parallels individual development: most of us learn fastest when we tackle what we can tackle, see there’s more, tackle that, see there’s more, and so on. A vision of where we want to be down the road is great, but a detailed description of all the tough stuff that will reveal itself along the way can be — for many of us — a deterrent to action rather than a support. Gandhi faced an incredibly complex situation in trying to get out from under the British Empire (the complexity is still unfolding, this many years later) and, wisely, his communication about that complexity was always calibrated by the need for strategic action. His favorite Christian hymn included a line he repeated over and over: “One step enough for me.”
I’m guessing that you love analysis. My hope is that your skills will empower the movement to the max. In the Movement for a New Society we supported the intellectual impulse among some members by reminding them that THREE cognitive pursuits are needed for success: analysis (yes), AND vision, AND strategy. By valuing all three, we were able to influence developing movements in the ’70s and ’80s to a degree way out of proportion to our numbers. And we also brought to the movements we entered a tremendous faith in people’s ability to learn by doing, and our job was to assist people to face with courage the next complication that was revealed as the movement moved — while also, through supportive study groups (underline supportive), assisting those who were ready for a macro-analysis that helps to anticipate what might be waiting around the bend.
Hope this is helpful.
“I’m guessing that you love analysis”. Analysis is one valuable tool, but I’m currently in the process of trying to envision how things might play out, given the interacting systemic changes to come, in ecosystems, economies, climates, and declining available energy. (One good source is Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”; another is John Michael Greer’s “The Long Descent” and some “post-industrial fiction”.)
I’m also learning about the lifeways of traditional indigenous peoples, considering how their understanding of the Earth and their place in it contributed to long-lasting societies that lived in regenerative balance with Gaia. One reason for this is to consider what it might be like for the movements to succeed, throwing off the yoke of the elite, and then face the question “what do we do now?”. I’m thinking that, in addition to combating the elite, it might be useful and empowering to address the question, “What do we want to create?”
Here’s another thought: my impression is that most of the “battles” are fought in urban contexts, confronting the elites in their strongholds. Might it be useful to spend some time and energy in more rural contexts, creating microcosms of viable future societies? An interesting reference on this is the essay “The Future is Rural” (https://www.postcarbon.org/publications/the-future-is-rural/). Also useful is “The Future is Rural: The Unexpected Consequence of Energy Descent” (https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-02-26/the-future-is-rural-the-unexpected-consequence-of-energy-descent/); this gives a clearer description of the reasons for the coming energy descent.
Given this vision, I’m suggesting a multi-faceted strategy, as much proactive as reactive. I’m guessing that the future contains both dangers and opportunities, and a wise path is to be open to dealing with both.
I’m delighted to hear about your interest in vision, which for a few decades there (after the 1980s) seemed to me very scarce — after an abundance of exciting vision work in the 1960s and ’70s. One of the ways I agree with you is believing that vision will be crucial in making the leap forward that needs to be made. You may have seen my brief, encouraging article about vision on this site:
“Vision is finally on the rise in U.S. politics,” WagingNonviolence.org, May 21, 2019.
Maybe it will be useful to collaborate with folks I mention in the article, or to let them know you’re available. The Vermont Vision Summit is very tuned in to your emphasis on the rural dimension.
Since the U.S. running a military empire is such a big part of the equation (including the climate crisis), you might also be interested in the visionary work my students at Swarthmore and I did on nonviolent ways of dealing with the reality of terrorism (also on this site): “8 ways to defend against terror nonviolently,” Jan 22, 2015.
George Lakey appropriated my life to write a transphobic and racially problematic chapter about me in “No Turning Back: Lesbian and Gay Liberation for the ’80s.” He used the pseudonym G. Talbott for me and wrote about a period in the late ’70s when I stopped transitioning. At one time in the 70s I used the name Carolyn Bell. In 1978 I started calling myself Cei (pronounced
C) Bell. He quoted me as saying, “I found out about androgyny, dear. And I know the world isn’t ready, but I’m willing to be first.” He also wrote: “We are guessing that because masculinity and femininity are more polarized in parts of the working class than in most of the middle/upper class, gay working-class boys are more often made to feel they must choose, and, given the choice, identify with women rather than men.”
The problem is we never had that conversation. At all. Lakey made the whole thing up. It didn’t even make logical sense. I co-founded Radical Queens, a group that dealt with issues of androgyny, in 1973. Why would I be discovering it in the late ’70s? We never discussed whether I was raised working class or middle class. We never discussed my parents. My father was a Prince Hall Mason who owned rental properties and obtained mortgages, despite redlining. Lakey had no clue what my father’s issues were. I stopped transitioning because I had been raped twice, some men had tried to murder me, and I needed to take a step back at the time because I had no support.
We were both working at 924 Cherry Street in Philadelphia, circa 1988. I returned to transitioning and working as a woman.. He came up to me and said, “You’re famous!” and handed me a copy of the book. I was very upset about what I read and told him so. He became angry and was poking his pacifist, non-violent, Quaker fingers into my chest.
If you want to know why the white LGB community is just now becoming aware that transgender women of color are being slaughtered, look at that book. It is because they didn’t care. Instead of using the book to shine a light on the issues of black transgender women, Lakey used me for his political motives. Years later he admitted to me he was uncomfortable about the subject. Lakey could swim to North Vietnam during the war but he couldn’t walk two blocks from the Quaker Meeting House at 15th and Cherry to 13th Street to talk to black drag queens and transgender women. The authors wrote: “This writing reflects who we, the authors, are: urban and white. We are not able to write about the experience of gay men of color nor of urban gays who have their own unique experience.” They lived in Philadelphia where people of color are everywhere. Lakey lived in West Philadelphia. They could have found some black men. Joe Beam was active in Philadelphia at that time. There were black gay groups. The authors just couldn’t climb over their own barriers.
Unable to find lesbians of color for the chapter “Lesbians of Color” the chapter was written by a white lesbian “for other white people.”
The cover of the book has a positive review from Larry Gross who was a professor of communications at Annenberg School of Communications at Penn and who apparently didn’t notice the lack of people of color.
Lakey went on to leading all white workshops on racism.
Considering what George Lakey did to me I question the veracity of what he wrote in his reply to Yotam Moran. I definite don’t believe he should be mentoring transgender people.
George, thank you for sharing your analysis and putting into such am understandable narrative, it is a river in itself, my question and comments are that I see the 1% as alsways going to be there and that we just need the 1% to be a good 1%, I am not saying that it the only possibility but I tihnk there will always be the 1%, further as an example, when slavery was abolished and CFCs removed from sale, these things happened becasue new technology was available to replace slavery and CFCs, the new 1% or those that wanted to be in the 1% found solutions and lobbied government decisin makers to make regulatory changes that stopped these two scourges, now the challenge is to mitigate climate change and make it to no net emissions by 2050, my view is that like slavery and CFCs when the rich position themsleves on an answer the change will come, I’d like to think that the opportunisim of the 1% and the noviolence movement can push together to get to this point – what do you think?