Symposium | Beyond Neoliberalism

Growing the Grassroots

By Dorian Warren

Tagged Grassroots Politicsneoliberalism

How do ideas at the margins become dominant? How one views American history and theorizes power and political change over time shapes the answer to this question. Most strategies on offer to usher in a post-neoliberal economic era are elite, grass-tops efforts that rely on a thin theory of change. These strategies alone will be inadequate. They are also fundamentally anti-democratic. Expert-led efforts to challenge and transform neoliberal political economy, while necessary, are woefully insufficient in an era marked by deep distrust of elites.

What are also needed are thicker theories of change, ones that embrace bottom-up social movements and grassroots efforts to move us decisively into a post-neoliberal political economy. Together, a formula of both grass-tops and grassroots strategies is necessary to transform the reigning political economic ideas and institutions of our time. What’s needed, to paraphrase Felicia Wong’s essay, is a robust organizing and political strategy with enough power to build a post-neoliberal world rooted in the aspirational values of interconnectedness, human flourishing, and the freedom to thrive. Neoliberals themselves were clear about the political project they were advancing. Our own aims should be just as clear.

Ideas are a ubiquitous form of power. Ideas shape people’s sense of what seems normal, natural, and within the scope of the possible. The triumph of neoliberalism and market fundamentalism of the last four decades has been to persuade far too many Americans of “TINA: There Is No Alternative.” A hundred years ago, as Yuval Noah Harari points out, there were at least three alternative, big stories of political economy and governance from which to choose: fascism, communism, and liberal democracy. 

Yet with the defeat of fascism in World War II and the fall of Communism in 1989, liberal democracy seemingly became fused with the political project of neoliberal political economy. Today, xenophobia, neo-fascism, and authoritarianism are on the rise around the world, what’s left of communism is isolated to just a few countries, and liberal democracy is increasingly discredited as it fails to deliver economic security and the freedom to thrive to disillusioned citizens.

But dominant ideas and worldviews are never fully dominating. Ordinary people who feel harm and injustice as a consequence often form critical or oppositional consciousness toward these ideas or ideologies—and their institutional expressions. And when connected to grassroots and social movement organizations, this oppositional consciousness is transformed into strategic imagination and “freedom dreams” that, when combined with sustained collective action, can transform narratives, institutions, rules, and policies. By seeking out expertise on political economy among those most affected by the ills of neoliberalism, as opposed to citing “experts,” we might find sharp critiques, alternative visions, and narratives of what some on the ground call “solidarity economies.” We may also reveal the willingness of people to fight for a post-neoliberal future—if they are included in this political project as co-creators, not simply atomized individuals waiting for ideas from on high.

A Grassroots Strategy for Post-Neoliberalism

So what would a successful strategy to challenge neoliberal ideas, rules, and institutions look like? I argue that the transformation to a post-neoliberal age will not come from academia or experts. At least not alone. Grassroots organizing and movements are the necessary ingredients for fundamental change. Social movements throughout American history have always delivered at least three key elements necessary for significant and enduring change: agenda-setting, narrative change, and structural shift in institutions, rules, or policies. And it’s the strategic use of disruptive power, combined with electoral power by large groups of ordinary people who, together, can’t be ignored, that shifts power relations, creates a crisis to be resolved, and channels political will in democratic and justice-promoting ways.

We are in a populist moment. Similar to the First Gilded Age of extreme economic and racial inequality, today’s ordinary people and workers—those most affected by decades of neoliberal political economy—are angry at the injustices of the economic rules of the game that leave them struggling to make ends meet and without democratic voice within the political institutions that have produced upward redistribution. But in a racially stratified and segregated country, the outlet for that anger can take one of two forms: inclusionary or exclusionary populism. Trumpism and the 40-year conservative coalition that includes neoliberals, evangelical Christians, and neo-confederates, among others, have used strategic racism to mobilize the anger among a significant base of poor and working-class white Americans into an exclusionary form of populism. The success of this effort has resulted in support for neoliberal ideas and policies that, in effect, serve to shorten the lifespans of, and prevent upward mobility for, a majority of whites, in addition to people of color. Or in the words of Jonathan Metzl, one of the consequences of the successful neoliberal project is that millions of Americans are “dying of whiteness.” Of course, people of color have always been on the losing end of American racial capitalism, whether in the Lochner or neoliberal eras.

But the seeds of a post-neoliberal paradigm can be found at the grassroots, particularly in poor and working-class communities of color, as well as among their organized white counterparts. This year marks the 25th anniversary of a critical grassroots challenge to the dominance of neoliberalism in America. In 1994, a multiracial group of grassroots leaders and organizations launched—and won—a “living wage” campaign in Baltimore, the first ever in the country. Challenging years of wage stagnation, growing income inequality and concentrated poverty all-too-often evident at the neighborhood level, this strategic, grassroots organizing effort did the unthinkable. It forced an economic justice issue (a living wage) that was not the normal course of political or policy business onto the agenda at the local levels. Raising wages was not an issue municipal governments took on widely before this agenda-setting triumph. Grassroots organizers and leaders shaped a powerful public narrative based on the lived experience of those closest to the problem—people living in poverty, working for low wages, mostly workers of color—and used the power that comes from organizing and mobilizing those most affected by the issue at hand. And they won, changing the local economic rules and policy and setting off a chain reaction around the country. Other cities soon followed Baltimore’s lead, including Milwaukee, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and more than 150 others. While academics and social scientists were just beginning to wade into a decades-long debate about growing income inequality and the effects of minimum and living wages on the economy, it was cities—led by grassroots community and labor organizing—that became the laboratories of democracy and sites of innovation for challenging neoliberal political economy. Not the other way around.

Following in the tradition of their predecessors in the late nineteenth-century populist movement, the age of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and New Deal workers’ movements, and the mid-twentieth-century black freedom movement, this groundbreaking grassroots effort planted the seeds for the political opportunity confronting us today. It brought the state back in to take on the market failure ushered in by the previous two decades of neoliberal political economy, particularly stagnating wages. It offered an alternative public narrative and reimagined the role of government by rewriting the rules of local economy to solve a major problem facing a majority of people harmed by the injustices of economic and racial inequality. It reclaimed trust in government and democratic institutions by engaging those most affected in collective action and civic engagement. It set an agenda for academics and policy elites to study and debate, and for other grassroots organizers and leaders to replicate and diffuse across the country. And it gave ordinary people a sense of their own power to make change—through combining collective disruptive and electoral power. Grassroots organizing didn’t wait for social science or policy elites to catch up or validate; it got out in front, as most social movements do.

We can draw a straight line from that 1994 living wage victory to the recent success of the Fight for $15 campaign (#FF15) today. Since that important on-the-ground victory in Baltimore in the mid-1990s, we have seen hundreds of successes where grassroots community and labor organizations rewrote the rules of local economies in advancing an anti-poverty and economic justice agenda. The efforts of these local political coalitions have resulted in the enactment of at least 150 living wage ordinances around the country. While some of these ordinances were limited in scope, covering only businesses contracted with municipal governments, they were followed by recent successful efforts to raise wages in cities and states, affecting millions of low-wage workers. The counterfactual is important here: But for these efforts of thousands of ordinary people collectively organizing where they live and work, can we imagine how many more people would be living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet today? In the case of the Fight for $15 campaign, the answer is 22 million workers, who received a collective $68 billion in raises since just 2012. What started with a group of fast food workers walking off the job in New York City and a first victory in the small town of SeaTac, Washington has since spread to wins in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, in addition to several states, including California, New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

I met with the early organizers and grassroots leaders of the #FF15 before they launched, and I remember distinctly all the liberal and progressive economists who told them explicitly not to be “so bold,” that this was an “impossible set of demands,” that they would “harm the very people they wanted to help,” that it was “too much, too fast.” These economists were all wrong.

We’ve seen this story before. A century before, there was the contemporaneous derision of the Populist movement’s call for regulating banks, an income tax, and the direct election of senators; all were enacted, although doing so took decades. There was the president of the American Economic Association declaring the death of trade unions in 1933, on the cusp of the invention of industrial unions and the biggest upsurge in union membership in history. There were the experts who in the 1930s claimed that an elderly, out-of-work, Long Beach, California doctor’s simple idea—old-age insurance to solve the major problem of poverty among the aged—was crazy and unrealistic—just a few years before several states and even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had adopted Dr. Francis Townsend’s idea and the robust vision for government undergirding it. We call it Social Security, and it is the single most effective anti-poverty policy we have, partly because it created a built-in political constituency ready and willing to fight for it. And lets not forget the more recent example of the seemingly radical demand for a guaranteed income, which was led by low-income black women in the 1960s welfare rights movement and ultimately became the earned income tax credit.

In all of these instances, it took courageous and visionary grassroots organizing around bold ideas by thousands of ordinary people most affected by the problem to create the political will to succeed. In all of these instances, and so many more, grassroots leaders and organizers trusted their own expertise, believed in the possibility for transformative social change in America, and ignored the so-called experts.

The upside to all of these living wage, minimum wage, and #FF15 victories is that there is a latent “army” of grassroots leaders ready to reimagine the rules of our neoliberal economy and usher in a new era. The downside is that the accumulation of these important campaigns has yet to offer a compelling, alternative narrative to neoliberalism with broad resonance. They have built good issue campaigns around economic inequality, but have yet to offer a robust new governing vision for the economy. The shoots are there, but they have yet to bloom, and this is where combining the work of thinkers and academics with social-movement organizers can have a transformational impact.

A Path to Power and Transformation

The path to power and transformation of neoliberal political economy must run through grassroots and social movement organizing. And it starts from a simple premise: Those most affected by injustice and inequality should have a voice in their solution. This is a core democratic principle that progressives all too often shirk. Many thinkers and advocates assume they “know best” based on their specific expertise, undervaluing the deep knowledge of those who have experienced the worst effects of neoliberalism. Not centering and engaging those closest to the big problems of our economy and democracy is both an anti-democratic and an insufficient strategy. But as Fredric Jameson reminds us, under most conditions, history progresses by failures more than successes. It was the right’s failure to stop the New Deal political economy and the movement for racial desegregation that led to the birth of neoliberalism. And the neoliberal political project, as historian Nancy MacLean reminds us, was rooted in both grassroots white resistance to desegregation of public schools and in academic thinkers searching for a solution to the momentum being gained at the time by movements for racial and economic justice. It is probably not a coincidence that the rise of neoliberalism coincided with the decline of the American labor movement and the demobilization of the black freedom movement. As we now know, neoliberalism was a frontal assault on those popular mobilizations of ordinary people.

In a historical moment of low trust in institutions and elites, the prevalence of “fake news,” and very little countervailing power for ordinary people to challenge oligarchic democracy and neoliberalism, we desperately need a grassroots strategy. Workers and those most affected by the ills of neoliberalism can be organized and mobilized in a post-neoliberal project, but only through what’s called “relational organizing” that relies on trusted messengers—friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family in trusted social networks. We must engage with those most affected in the co-creation of an alternative narrative to neoliberalism, one where ordinary people can see themselves in it and have democratic ownership over it. Power buries good ideas to uphold the status quo, and our country is overflowing with graveyards of alternative ideas that died as a result of no political will. Millions of Americans are ready to be engaged. We can and must create a new wave of political will to usher in a post-neoliberal era. But will we?

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Dorian Warren is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, an MSNBC Contributor, and Board Chair of the Center for Community Change

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