Written for Metro Justice's Strategic Planning Process March 2016.
Why an analysis of the moment? We have to know where we’re at to know where we’re going. Political tactics and strategies are always shaped by our understandings of the problems, opportunities and realities in our world. Thoughtful reflection on the larger trends allows us to target our organizing and more effectively engage people and movements. Below, are three major areas: First, economic and political shifts that we see a global trends. Second, we identified five core issues arising within the United States that are shaping the current social justice landscape. These issues are results of the global and economic climate. Third, we turn our lens to the current condition of the American Left and our national political system
Ultimately, we believe that the conditions are such to expect a period of bold, mass social movements in the United States. The opportunities are real for ideas of social justice to find a new popularity and strength, and we’re positioned to take a leading role in that new era.
GLOBAL ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL SHIFTS
- Unprecedented global systems:
As power and wealth concentrate in fewer hands, economic and political decisions are made further away from our communities. Local institutions are increasingly weaker. A handful of CEOs have determined how global economics function in the 21st century. Local issues have increasingly international solutions.
Social media and internet communications are providing new openings:
The internet and social media are offering new alternatives in communication. Alternative ideas increasingly have means of mass communication at their disposal. Massive communication can happen much more rapidly. There is also increasingly a tendency towards isolation and click-activism, where people feel as though they’ve contributed by speaking their opinion into the echo chamber of social media. This offers both serious opportunities and challenges. But, historically massive movements tend to erupt amidst big changes to communication technologies.
Rising Millennial Generation with new politics and new economic realities:
The “Millennial” Generation is coming of age in the US, and are doing so with vastly different political outlook. The group of people currently aged roughly 18-33 are one of the most left-leaning generations in a long time. This generation shows support for socialism as an idea and tends to support anti-discrimination social ideas. They are also largely entering adulthood into a rigged economy with massive debt. Precarity is their norm, so for many social change is their drive.
Current economic and social realities have led to an erosion of community:
Increasing economic precarity, longer work hours, increased debt, and transient employment have led to an erosion of community. This has increased skepticism in organizations, while simultaneously weakening them. From churches to community organizations to unions, active participation has declined in recent years.
Era of unimagined inequality marked by powerful racial disparities in wealth:
For around 40 years wealth inequality continued to get worse. Productivity skyrocketed by comparison to wages, meaning the rich were getting richer in relation to the poor. Wages, particularly at the low end were stagnating. The financial and housing crisis of 2008 led to a further erosion of wealth among poor people. This is highly notable in Black and Latino communities, as the newer wealth of their homes was the first lost in the crisis. The wealth divide between average white families by comparison to average black and latino families increased since 2008. Economic recovery since 2008 has also been largely at the top. Unemployment has dropped due to replacement by low-wage jobs in retail and food-service. While the narrative of the nation is that we’ve left crisis, poor people and communities of color have continued decades of crisis.
Massive system of incarceration and policing:
Today there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. While the Black population makes us only 13% of the US population they are 40% of the prison population. Whites make up 39% and Latinos 19% of the prison population. There are another 820,000 on parole and 3,8 million on probation. That said, the United States has by far the highest incarceration rates in the world. Prisons are increasingly private for-profit industries, and are often putting inmates to work for private for-profit companies at wages slightly above zero. The precarity faced by our communities, particularly the Black community from this system is powerful. While this has been an active concern of the Black community for decades, the white left and institutional powers have been negligent in their response.
Climate change forces urgency and is a clear challenge to right wing ideology:
As the threat of irreversible climate change bears down on the world, it becomes increasingly clear that we can’t wait to create serious global change. The changes necessary to genuinely combat climate change are collective in nature, require a re-capturing of the commons, and are inherently a threat to right-wing, individualism, free-market ideas.
Continued attacks on already weakened public and social services:
Public services like K-12 education and public benefits like Medicaid and SNAP are facing continued political attacks. These attacks are aided by the already low-levels of support these institutions receive. Poorly funded schools, just like poorly funded support programs are cited for their failures as reason to fund them even less. Politically, this is part of a nationwide project of austerity to dismantle public benefits and services and replace them with private for-profit services and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Rise in International militarization:
The never ending “War on Terror” that sparked the anti-war movement of the early 2000’s has done exactly as we said it would. It has destabilized the middle east, led to an increase in terrorism, and emboldened a massively profitable war industry in the US. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue in a quieter way than before, this war has since expanded to Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and many others. It has sparked an international refugee crisis.
CONDITIONS OF POLITICS AND THE LEFT
Recent movements have made status quo seem untenable:
Occupy Wall Street shined a spotlight on worsening wealth inequality. Black Lives Matter has made clear the life and death consequences that economics, politics, and police practices have in the Black community. The People’s Climate March and growing movement highlight the shrinking timeline available for massive changes to be made. To huge numbers of people, the urgency of genuine change seems to be amplifying.
Left locally has notable intergenerational split:
Not unlike much of the rest of the country, there seems to be a generation missing from left activism. We have long-term activists from the founding in their 60’s-80’s and then younger activists in their 20’s-30’s. While basic values may have some similarities, there are notable differences in strategies, ideologies, and modes of operation and communication. Notably, some of the most successful social movements of our history have been successful at bridging these gaps.
Recent mass popular movements are impacting public opinion, but aren’t building sustained organization:
Since the year 2000, we’ve had increasingly regular “movement moments”. From the anti-globalization and anti-war movements in the early 2000’s to Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for 15 more recently, there is an abundance of movement activity. This activity has had massive impacts on public opinion. The narrative of the 99% is a strong example. However, these movements haven’t built strategies to sustain beyond their moment and therefore haven’t built longer-term capacity for social justice forces. Even the Fight for 15, as an institutionally led movement, has yet to figure out the organizational question of long-term mass membership.
Gridlock of national and state political systems:
As the remnants of the right-wing power elite cling to whatever entrenched power they can and popular opinion swings to the political fringes, the result is political gridlock in state and national political institutions. Every issue has become grounds for an ideological battle, and ultimately answers to our many challenges aren’t being brought about by political leadership. Trying to win meaningful change in the legislative arena has meant battling through this gridlock.
No viable US anti-war movement:
Despite increasing international militarism and the US’s role in international destabilization, the US anti-war movement continues to shrink and hasn’t managed to build long-term power from its peaks in the early 2000’s.
You can find a description of the process that led us to these conclusions here.