For the Times They Are a Changing

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Bob Dylan could have been writing about these times when he composed the lyrics ‘the times they are a changing’. This was never so apparent than on a recent trip to the US to meet  with social and economic justice organisations.

Most striking was the shift in the parameters of the public debate about wealth, income inequality and social mobility, all in the space of a few months. Mainstream print media and TV networks are now regularly carrying stories and editorials questioning how much inequality can be tolerated and if wealth redistribution is necessary to save the country from the abyss.

Underpinning much of the debate is the realisation that the land of opportunity or the so-called ‘America Dream’ is more a myth than reality. Up and down the country or in truth the east and west coasts, the failure of the economic model to deliver a meaningful and sustainable life for so many people who call America home is being discussed and debated.

The realisation that children are facing a poorer and less secure future than their parents is a very painful reality that is slowly dawning on many Americans. The aspiration of social mobility has in many respects underpinned the reasons why social and economic inequality has been tolerated for so long.

In the ensuing vacuum there is a battle royal between the ideologically left and right to claim the space that has emerged. The rise of the Tea Party is a clear example of the search for a vehicle to harness the views of the conservative value base within American society.

The occupy Movement provides a much needed counter force. Interestingly the similarities to be found in the manner with which they organise, cannot be overlooked or undermined.

Horizontal governance and leadership, grass roots mobilisation, an emphasis on values, flexibility and use of online advocacy are proving to be powerful features of this new form of movement building on all sides of the ideological divide and in many respects are leaving the traditional institutions standing in their wake.

The Occupy Movement in the space of a few months has generated more space for the progressive left than any other development in decades. Recent US opinion polls show widespread support for the ideals of the movement. Many activists involved in social, economic and labour rights work all echo the sentiment that key issues especially income inequality have gone from being a marginal to a mainstream concern.

There is a growing consensus that the occupy Movement is providing the vital oxygen for progressive ideas and campaigns. The debate about what demands it has and exactly what it stands for are largely seen as irrelevant.

What matters is that it has an energy that is resonating with the mainstream and social organisations, trade unions and others. It is realised that the key is not to attempt to coordinate, structure or manage this phenomenon but to get behind it practically and publically.

The overriding sense is that ‘business as usual’ is no longer good enough and the challenge this presents to traditional methods and organisations is immense. The attack on immigrant rights, trade unions and social justice work has gained significant ground in recent years.

This attack received a boost in the past year as the Republicans took control of the majority of state legislators. Socially progressive laws have been flipped or regressive ones passed. Anti immigrant laws have been introduced in a number of states. Undocumented children in Alabama are to be reported by teachers and police powers extended. The political climate is such that the wildly supported Dream Act, which would enable children born and educated in the US to be regularised, cannot be passed into law at national level because of the political stalemate on Capital Hill.

In a number of states, anti union laws have been introduced including the limitation of negotiating rights in the public sector and making the collection of dues very difficult. Alongside this concerted effort is the reality that union density is at its all time lowest.

The light in the tunnel is the new forms of organising and and alliance building taking place across civil society. Politicalisation of union members and sharing of resources and priorities are just some of the ways in which unions are fighting back.

In many cities unions have become active in supporting the local occupy movement.

Initatives like the Working Families Party, an initiative of several unions in New York State demonstrates really innovative ways of exerting political pressure through the fusion voting system there.

It is impossible to avoid the dominant role of the media in US politics. The 24/7 news cycle is relentless. Social change organisations require 24-hour tactics to keep up, never mind get ahead. Like in Ireland, the framing of public debate is crucial to gaining public support for socially and economic just policies.

The role of TV networks in shaping pubic opinion is very significant and many civil society organisations spend much of their time participating in debates where the terms of the discussion guarantee that they cannot progress their goals i.e. debates about budget cuts rather than focusing on jobs.

The refreshing counter movement is the re-energised effort to rebuild from the bottom up. Grass roots mobilisation of union members, community members – geographical and interest based, students, faith communities, progressive thinkers are now considering the most powerful and successful approach to sustainable social change. Organisations and unions are pooling their energy, are sharing their resources and skills and joining forces to hold the line of decency at a state and national level.

The level of cooperation evident in the social justice struggle is remarkable. Key issues like income equality, bank foreclosures, jobs, racist immigration laws, anti-union attacks are dominant themes. There has been a noticeable shift away from formal coalitions to a more nimble, alliance-building approach capable of a speedy and flexible reaction.

The interdependence of civil society actors who share mutual values and goals has become the driving force for moving campaigns forward. The risks are obvious but in general the feeling is one that they ultimately have more to gain from cooperating than competing for space, funding and recognition.

The obstacles are immense but the possibilities for change are crystalising in a way never known before. The energy generated through the occupy movement has real potential to be turned into transformational power. This requires decisive goals that match the scale of the problems faced on both sides of the Atlantic.

Decisive leadership less concerned with holding power but building grass roots ownership will be key as will be the capacity to stretch the boundaries of our respective sectors, organisations and organising methods.

There is no doubt that the belief system that has held societies together is no longer aligned with the realities of people’s lives. The winner takes all approach has failed. The question is can we harness the anger and sense of possibility to break with the past and realise a new tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the latest edition of Shopfloor, the newspaper of Mandate the union.


One Response

  1. CMK

    January 17, 2012 2:10 pm

    An interesting post. However, I think,and this relates to your discussion of the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, there is a crucial difference between the two which is pivotal for understanding what each development represents.

    The Tea Party is, for the most part, a gigantic astro-turf phenomenon that has reached the point it has solely through the financial efforts of the Koch brothers and the vast right wing intellectual infrastructure that dominates public discourse in the US, and which is owned, controlled and funded by the .1%. The Tea Party is the skillful manipulation of racism, petty resentment and economic insecurity, but an ultra-wealthy vanguard intent on securing their position.

    While the Occupy movement is a genuine grassroots development arising spontaneously as a consequence of the ongoing structural adjustments to the living standards and expectations of the vast majority of US citizens. No one is paying people to Occupy, but the Tea Party would wither to nothing if it’s funding dried up.