I recently posted a piece I did for CCPA’s The Monitor recommending five readings on big change. Here I will try to distill some of what I gleaned about what it might take.

Know the barriers: Big change is hard so it makes good sense to know the obstacles and have strategies for overcoming them. We know for example that those who have benefitted most from how things are will fight hard to keep them that way, to hang on to their power and privilege. We also know that with the extraordinary concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, those few have enormous capacity to shape the discourse, to shape what we take to be common sense. The big structural changes we need to combat climate change, colonialism, racism and inequality also demand a new common sense. In part that means reframing the debate.

Stop making money top priority: To take one obvious example, we need to take on the prevailing fiscal narrative, dominant for at least four decades, that we cannot collectively afford nice things or that those in greatest need must always wait in line until wealth trickles down, wait while we “deal with the economy” as though it were somehow disembedded from society and nature. Of course we have to figure out how we will pay for what we want (starting with taxing the rich has rarely made more sense) and how we might best manage the financial risks. But we have to reject the fiscal primacy that somehow puts money risks ahead of risks to human health and well being. As Seth Klein reminds us we know we are in an emergency when we are spending whatever’s needed. Haven’t we all agreed that we are in the midst of just such an emergency, indeed a crisis embedded in larger crises?

Change the language: Similarly we have to take back some of the language we have lost over the last decades. Nowhere is that clearer than with the hollowing out and withering of the notion of freedom which we have turned from a core progressive value to a fetish, justifying selfishness and greed and disregard for any notion of the common good. We need to plug into and make clear the emancipatory promise of progressive change, understanding emancipation as more than the pursuit of personal freedom but also and inseparably “the struggle for a better, just or more ethical society”.

Similarly, we have to stop cowering when accusations of “tax and spend” inevitably start flying. Tax, as has been said, is not a four-letter word, and spending on public goods, especially given where we find ourselves, may surely do us more good than ever more shopping.

Expand the window of possibility: One of the biggest barriers we face is the widespread sense of powerlessness that decades of austerity have yielded. We need then to remind people of what big things we have done together in the past and what great things some are doing right now. And we need to show people what’s possible, starting perhaps at the local level where the trust may be highest and the possibilities for change more immediate and tangible.

Good news, bad news: To overcome inertia and complacency we are often tempted to focus on the catastrophe we are trying to avoid without sufficient attention to the enticing prospects of a more just, inclusive, empowered and sustainable future. Of course we need straight talk about the stakes, the bad news, but we also need much more of the kind of inviting vision that AOC and Avi Lewis provide us in the Message From the Future. Many of us will choose the world we know with all its flaws and cracks over a world we cannot imagine or believe. We need some of the poetry that helps us see and believe.

Avoid the “something is better than nothing” trap: Of course sometimes incremental progress is all that’s needed or good enough for now. But it can also be dangerous. When tackling structural challenges like climate change and inequality, incrementalism may lull us into thinking we are doing enough, may sap the energy we need for big change, may take us down paths that actually inhibit the necessary structural reforms. If we want big change then increments only work when they are part of a larger picture and we need the whole picture.

Put democratic renewal at the centre of the agenda: Anand Giridharadas has written powerfully about the enduring costs of four decades of war on government and about the need for an equally vociferous battle to rebuild public capacity and trust in public institutions. Transformation will require that government make a comeback and this will take an investment in public service – people and tools – and the development of new approaches to public enterprise, such as community ownership and cooperatives and just maybe a public university-based agency for vaccine production.

But the antidote to market worship is not simply shifting all of our trust to the state. Rebuilding our collective toolkit and the trust required for collective action will require reimagining our democratic institutions. Numerous studies have documented a worrying decline in commitment to democratic institutions and in the belief that democracy can deliver what’s needed. For example, Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, who have long been tracking public support for democracy conclude:

“What we find is deeply concerning. Citizens in a number of … democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy

Wolfgang Schafer and Armin Shreek make a compelling case that this is the not too surprising result of the politics of austerity. It’s what happens, they say, when people believe that vast market forces or the interests of the rich and powerful have captured the government, when people come to view the democratic process as more or less irrelevant to their needs: they increasingly opt out or act out and can become more vulnerable to the appeal of non-democratic solutions.  So: conspiracy theories, online hate, January 6 in America, angry anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers everywhere.

For Schafer and Shreek democratic renewal is very much a budget matter. It starts with a commitment to reducing inequality, combatting poverty and rebalancing power through investments in the care economy and strengthened income supports paid for by sharply progressive taxes. Proposals for a basic income guarantee are fundamentally about empowering citizens and workers. Democratic renewal also demands that our policies and programs be embedded in a commitment to gender equality, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism. And it will require revitalizing our democratic institutions, starting with often-promised but never-delivered electoral reform. All these policies would help people, especially those who have felt excluded, to connect to one another and their governments and would restore more power to a greater number.

Also essential is democratization of the workplace, that is to say, redressing the inherent imbalance in power between workers and employers. The $15 dollar federal minimum wage is a welcome step even if largely symbolic. Governments must do much more to guarantee decent work and fair pay. Protecting workers rights will also require changes in the rules of the game, of course labour laws that protect the expanding precariat, but also trade agreements that protect worker rights, bankruptcy laws that give priority to pensions and disability benefits, corporate governance rules that enhance workers’ voice, and policies that help expand union membership and encourage and facilitate worker ownership.

Democratic renewal is not a side issue. We will not rise to our collective challenges if we don’t rebuild social and political trust. No change will hold without a power shift.

Find the sweet spot that reconciles solidarity and diversity: Big change almost always starts outside of our political institutions. In the ongoing battle between free marketeers and statists we often give insufficient attention to civil society’s role in driving change and holding governments to account. What works to drive change, the evidence suggests, is sustained and broad based public pressure (the literature on civil disobedience suggests that to be effective it must engage between 3% and 4% of the population, for example). All this to say that what’s needed is a way to knit together in a broad coalition the many social movements, civil society organizations and labour organizations fighting for various aspects of environmental and social justice and human rights. And we can only hope to do this, to find a new solidarity, by respecting both the particular and the universal, both the unique and incommensurate lived experience and our shared human experience, and by accepting that we are stronger when all fight for each and each for all. There is no choosing which priority should drive us – the fight against climate change, inequality, colonialism, racism, and bigotry; they are connected and we will not achieve the change we need on any if we allow our differences to deflect us from working to rebalance the inequalities in power that underlie all else.

(This post contains excerpts that have appeared elsewhere in this blog.)

2 Responses to “MAKING BIG CHANGE”
  1. Michael Mulrooney says:

    Thank you for this article. You’ve identified a broad spectrum of challenges that we face as a civilization and useful insights on how they intertwine. Lots of food for thought.


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