For the National Conference on Organized Resistance, held in
What To Avoid
We need look no further than to the history of twentieth century social democracy to see how fighting for reforms can make a movement reformist. Social democrats began the twentieth century determined to replace capitalism with socialism — which they understood to be a system of equitable cooperation based on democratic planning by workers, consumers, and citizens. Long before the century was over social democratic parties and movements throughout the world had renounced the necessity of replacing private enterprise and markets with fundamentally different economic institutions, and pledged themselves only to pursue reforms geared toward making a system based on competition and greed which they accepted as inevitable more humane. As a result social democrats were doomed to grappled with two dilemmas: (1) What to do when leaving the system intact makes it impossible to further promote economic justice and democracy, much less environmental sustainability. (2) What to do when further reforms destabilize a system one has agreed to accept while the system constantly threatens to undermine hard won gains. Social democrats struggled unsuccessfully with these dilemmas, all too often abandoning important components of economic justice and democracy and denouncing political tendencies to their left whose programs they considered politically or economically destabilizing.
We need look no further than to the history of twentieth century libertarian socialism to see how failing to embrace reform struggles can isolate a movement and make it irrelevant. The principle failure of libertarian socialists during the twentieth century was their inability to understand the necessity and importance of reform organizing. When it turned out that anti-capitalist uprisings were few and far between, and libertarian socialists proved incapable of sustaining the few that did occur early in the twentieth century, their reticence to throw themselves into reform campaigns, and ineptness when they did, doomed libertarian socialists to more than a half century of decline after their devastating defeat during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. What too many libertarian socialists failed to realize was that any transition to a democratic and equitable economy has no choice but to pass through reform campaigns, organizations, and institutions however tainted and corrupting they may be. The new left tried to exorcise the dilemma that reform work is necessary but corrupting with the concept of non-reformist reforms. According to this theory the solution to the dilemma was for activists to work on non-reformist reforms, i.e. reforms that improve people’s lives while undermining the material, social, or ideological underpinnings of the capitalist system. There is nothing wrong with the notion of winning reforms while undermining capitalism. As a matter of fact, that is a concise description of pecisely what we must be about! What was misleading was the notion that there are particular reforms that are like silver bullets and accomplish this because of something special about the nature of those reforms themselves.
The Myth of the Non-Reformist Reform
There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform. Social democrats and libertarian socialists did not err because they somehow failed to find and campaign for this miraculous kind of reform. Nor would new leftists prove successful where others had failed before them because new leftists found a special kind of reform different from those social democrats championed and libertarian socialists shied away from. Some reforms improve peoples lives more, and some less. Some reforms are easier to win, and some are harder to win. Some reforms are easier to defend, and some are less so. And of course, different reforms benefit different groups of people. Those are ways reforms, themselves, differ. On the other hand, there are also crucial differences in how reforms are fought for. Reforms can be fought for by reformers preaching the virtues of capitalism. Or reforms can be fought for by anti-capitalists pointing out that only by replacing capitalism will it be possible to fully achieve what reformers want. Reforms can be fought for while leaving institutions of repression intact. Or a reform struggle can at least weaken repressive institutions, if not destroy them. Reforms can be fought for by hierarchical organizations that reinforce authoritarian, racist, and sexist dynamics and thereby weaken the overall movement for progressive change. Or reforms can be fought for by democratic organizations that uproot counter productive patterns of behavior and empower people to become masters and mistresses of their fates. Reforms can be fought for in ways that leave no new organizations or institutions in their aftermath. Or reforms can be fought for in ways that create new organizations and institutions that fortify progressive forces in the next battle. Reforms can be fought for through alliances that obstruct possibilities for further gains. Or the alliances forged to win a reform can establish the basis for winning more reforms. Reforms can be fought for in ways that provide tempting possibilities for participants, and particularly leaders, to take unfair personal advantage of group success. Or they can be fought for in ways that minimize the likelihood of corrupting influences. Finally, reform organizing can be the entire program of organizations and movements. Or, recognizing that reform organizing within capitalism is prone to weaken the personal and political resolve of participants to pursue a full system of equitable cooperation, reform work can be combined with other kinds of activities, programs, and institutions that rejuvenate the battle weary and prevent burn out and sell out.
In sum, any reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.
In any case, it turns out we are a more cautious and social species than twentieth century libertarian socialists realized. And it turns out that capitalism is far more resilient than libertarian socialists expected it to be. More than a half century of libertarian socialist failures belie the myth that it is possible for social revolutionaries committed to democracy to eschew reform work without becoming socially isolated. Avoidance of participation in reform work is simply not a viable option and only guarantees defeat for any who opt out. Moreover, no miraculous non-reformist reform is going to come riding to our rescue. Though many twentieth century libertarian socialists failed to realize it, their only hope was to throw themselves wholeheartedly into reform struggles while searching for ways to minimize the corrupting pressures that inevitably are brought to bear on them as a result.
Combine Reform Work with Experiments in Equitable Cooperation
If the answer does not lie in finding a special kind of reform, how are we to prevent reform work from weakening our rejection of capitalism and sabotaging our efforts to eventually replace it with a system of equitable cooperation? Beside working for reforms in ways that lead to demands for further progress, and besides working in ways that strengthen progressive movements and progressive voices within movements, I believe the answer lies in combining reform work with building what I call imperfect experiments in equitable cooperation.
Before we will be able to replace competition and greed with equitable cooperation, before we can replace private enterprise and markets with worker and consumer councils and participatory planning, we will have to devise intermediate means to prevent backsliding and regenerate forward momentum. For the foreseeable future most of this must be done by combining reform work with work to establish and expand imperfect experiments in equitable cooperation. Both kinds of work are necessary. Neither strategy is effective by itself.
Reforms alone cannot achieve equitable cooperation because as long as the institutions of private enterprise and markets are left in place to reinforce anti-social behavior based on greed and fear, progress toward equitable cooperation will be limited, and the danger of retrogression will be ever present. Moreover, reform campaigns undermine their leaders’ commitment to full economic justice and democracy in a number of ways, and do little to demonstrate that equitable cooperation is possible, or establish new norms and expectations. On the other hand, concentrating exclusively on organizing alternative economic institutions within capitalist economies also cannot be successful. First and foremost, exclusive focus on building alternatives to capitalism is too isolating. Until the non-capitalist sector is large, the livelihoods of most people will depend on winning reforms in the capitalist sector, and therefore that is where most people will become engaged. But concentrating exclusively on experiments in equitable cooperation will also not work because the rules of capitalism put alternative institutions at a disadvantage compared to capitalist firms they must compete against, and because market forces drive non-capitalist institutions to abandon cooperative principles. Unlike liberated territories in third-world countries, in the advanced economies we will have to build our experiments in equitable cooperation inside our capitalist economies. So our experiments will always be fully exposed to competitive pressures and the culture of capitalism. Maintaining cooperative principles in alternative experiments under these conditions requires high levels of political commitment, which it is reasonable to expect from activists committed to building “a new world,” but not reasonable to expect from everyone. Therefore, concentrating exclusively on reforms, and focusing only on building alternatives within capitalism are both roads that lead to dead ends. Only in combination will reform campaigns and imperfect experiments in equitable cooperation successfully challenge the economics of competition and greed in the decades ahead.
Since both reform work and building alternatives within capitalism are necessary, neither is inherently more crucial nor strategic than the other. Campaigns to reform capitalism and building alternative institutions within capitalism are both integral parts of a successful strategy to accomplish in this century what we failed to accomplish in the past century — namely, making this century capitalism’s last! Unfortunately, saying we need stronger reform movements and stronger experiments in equitable cooperation does not do justice to the magnitude of the tasks. Particularly in the
Reform Campaigns and Reform Movements
So, unless anti-capitalists throw themselves heart and soul into reform movements we will continue to be marginalized. At least for the foreseeable future most victims of capitalism will seek redress through various reform campaigns fighting to ameliorate the damage capitalism causes, and these victims have every right to consider us AWOL if we do not work to make reform campaigns as successful as possible. Moreover, we must work enthusiastically in reform movements knowing full well that we will usually not rise to leadership positions in these movements because our beliefs will not be supported by a majority of those who are attracted to these movements for many years to come. Working in reform campaigns and reform movements means working with others who still accept capitalism. Most who are initially attracted to reform campaigns will be neither anti-capitalist nor advocates of replacing capitalism with a wholly new system of equitable cooperation. And most of the leadership of reform campaigns and movements will be even more likely to defend capitalism as a system, and argue that correcting a particular abuse is all that is required. But we must never allow others to decide how we work in reform movements, or permit others to dictate our politics. We do know something most others at this point do not — that capitalism must eventually be replaced altogether with a system of equitable cooperation.
Taming Finance: Because the financial sector is particularly dysfunctional due to so-called neoliberal “reforms” pushed through over the past two decades by the financial sector and sympathetic politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties — with an assist from mainstream economists — there is a very large margin for improvement in the performance of both the domestic and international financial sectors. Anti-reforms like the repeal of the Glass-Steagall regulatory system in the US in 1999 and various measures that go under the label of international capital liberalization orchestrated by the US Department of theTreasury and the IMF, have eliminated minimal protections and safeguards imposed by legislation and international practices dating back to the New Deal and the Bretton Woods Conference. Not since the roaring twenties have national economies and the global economy been as subject to the destructive effects of financial bubbles and crashes as we are today. Consequently, there is a great deal that can be accomplished to improve the lives of capitalism’s victims through financial reform, both domestic and international. Moreover, many of these reforms are not a radical departure from past policies.
While reforms that should be relatively easy to sell can make substantial improvements, unfortunately campaigns for financial reform are particularly difficult for popular progressive forces to work in effectively. Unlike “peace, not war,” financial reform is more technically complicated, and therefore harder to educate and mobilize ordinary citizens around. Unlike campaigns against polluters that can often be fought locally, to a great extent financial reform must proceed at the national and international levels through organizations and coalitions that are many steps removed from local constituencies and invariably led by people who are no friends of the economics of equitable cooperation. These are important liabilities to bear in mind for groups deciding whether or not to prioritize this kind of reform work. There are some exceptions. Anti-red lining and community reinvestment campaigns can be fought at the local level. The Financial Markets Center even has a campaign to increase the influence of ordinary citizens over monetary policy by exploiting provisions in the enabling act that created the Federal Reserve Bank for representation of community groups on local boards of the Federal Reserve Bank. But unfortunately, taming domestic and international finance is largely an activity that will appear esoteric and distant to most citizen activists, as much as it affords attractive opportunities to point out how badly the capitalist financial sector miss serve the ordinary public.
Full Employment Macro Policies: There is no reason aggregate demand cannot be managed through fiscal and monetary policies to keep actual production close to potential GDP and cyclical unemployment to a minimum. And forcing governments to engage in effective stabilization policies not only makes the economy more efficient, but strengthens the broad movement struggling for equitable cooperation in other ways as well.
Wage increases and improvements in working conditions are easier to win in a full employment economy. Affirmative action programs designed to redress racial and gender discrimination are easier to win when the economic pie is growing rather than stagnant or shrinking. Union organizing drives are more likely to be successful when labor markets are tight than when unemployment rates are high. The reason privileged sectors in capitalism obstruct efforts to pursue full employment macro policies — it diminishes their bargaining power — is precisely the reason those fighting for equitable cooperation should campaign for it. For all these reasons it is crucial to win reforms that move us even closer to “full employment capitalism” than the Scandinavians achieved during the 1960s and 1970s. But it is important not to overestimate what this will accomplish. Even if everyone had a job, they would not have a job they could support a family on, much less one that paid them fairly for their sacrifices. Low wage jobs flipping burgers at MacDonalds is a poor substitute for better paid jobs producing farm machinery. Even if everyone had a job, they would not have personally rewarding, socially useful work since most jobs in capitalism are more personally distasteful than necessary, and much work in capitalism is socially useless. Jobs in telemarketing or temp services without benefits are poor substitutes for jobs with benefits teaching reasonably sized classes or cleaning up polluted rivers. A full employment economy through military Keynesianism and tax cuts for the wealthy is hardly the kind of full employment program progressives should support.
So when we fight for full employment stabilization policies we should never forget to point out that what every citizen deserves is a socially useful job with fair compensation. We should never tire of pointing out that while capitalism is incapable of delivering on this, it is just as possible as it is sensible. We must also work to expand opportunities for socially useful, self-managed work for which people are compensated fairly by increasing the number of jobs in worker owned and managed cooperatives so more and more people have an alternative to working for capitalists.
Tax Reform: Progressive taxes, i.e. taxes that require those with higher income or wealth to pay a higher percentage of their income or wealth in taxes, can reduce income and wealth inequality. There are a number of organizations with tax reform proposals that would replace regressive taxes with more progressive ones and make progressive taxes even more progressive. Citizens for Tax Justice (www.ctj.org) and United for a Fair Economy (www.ufenet.org) not only provide useful critiques of right wing tax initiatives, but present excellent progressive alternatives for tax reform as well. Unfortunately, we have been “progressing” rapidly in reverse in the United States over the past twenty-five years as the wealthy have used their growing influence with politicians they fund to shift the tax burden off themselves, where it belongs, onto the less fortunate, where it does not.
Beside making the tax system more progressive, we need to tax bad behavior not good behavior. Efficiency requires taxing pollution emissions an amount equal to the damage suffered by the victims of the pollution. Moreover, if governments did this they would raise a great deal of revenue. But even if the tax is collected from the firms who pollute, the cost of the tax will be distributed between the firms who pollute and the consumers of the products they produce. Studies of pollution tax incidence — who ultimately bears what part of a tax on pollution — have concluded that lower income people would bear a great deal of the burden of many pollution, or “green taxes.” In other words, many pollution taxes would be highly regressive and therefore aggravate economic injustice. On the other hand, the federal, state, and local governments in the US already collect many taxes that are even more regressive than pollution taxes would be. In 1998 highly regressive social security taxes were the second greatest source of US federal tax revenues, responsible for more than a third of all federal revenues. If every dollar collected in new federal pollution taxes were paired with a dollar reduction in social security taxes we would substitute taxes on “bad behavior” — pollution — for taxes on “good behavior” — productive work — and make the federal tax system more progressive as well. At the state and local level there are even more regressive taxes to choose from that could be replaced with state and local green taxes making state and local taxes less regressive than the are currently. Redefining Progress (www.redefiningprogress.org) is one organization promoting sensible proposals for combining green taxes with reductions in more regressive taxes to achieve “accurate prices” that reflect environmental costs while making the tax system more, not less fair.
Living Wages: Contrary to popular opinion, raising the minimum wage not only promotes economic justice but makes the economy more efficient in the long run as well. In other words, it is good economics in every sense. Similarly, living wage campaigns in a number of American cities have been important initiatives to make US capitalism more equitable and efficient over the past ten years. Particularly where unions are weak and represent a small fraction of the labor force, minimum and living wage programs are important programs to steer capitalism toward the high road to growth.
As of June 2004 the number of cities that had passed living wage ordinances had risen to 121 and included New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Buffalo, Pittsburg, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Miami. The Living Wage Resource Center posts up-to-date information on the status of living wage campaigns on their web site: www.livingwagecampaign.org. United Students Against Sweatshops has made available on their web site, www.usasnet.org, data on a number of campus living wage campaigns in which they were involved, including campaigns at the University of California at San Diego, Valdosta State University in Georgia, Stanford University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. As union power has diminished in the United States, living wage campaigns have become increasingly important ways for progressive communities to protect their working members against declining living standards.
Single-Payer Health Care: The US health care system is in shambles. From both a medical and financial perspective it has been a mushrooming disaster for well over two decades. In all reform campaigns there is always tension between those who want to hold out for more far reaching, significant changes and those who preach the practical necessity of a more incrementalist approach. Usually the debate reduces to how much better a far reaching solution is compared to how much more likely incremental changes are to be won. The struggle for health care reform in the United States over the past two decades is a rare case where the incremental approach is actually less practical than fighting for significant reform because there is simply no way to extend adequate coverage to all and control escalating costs through the private insurance industry. Other than expanding Medicare coverage — for example, to cover those between 55 and 64 years old — there is no way to even begin to set things right until we have universal coverage and single payer health insurance in place. At the national level HR676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Bill, introduced by Congressman John Conyers Jr. in 2003, is clearly the reform worth working for.
Only a single-payer, government insurance program can provide universal coverage while containing costs by eliminated the considerable administrative expenses of private insurance “cherry picking.” Only a single-payer program can eliminate the paper work and confusion associated with administering multiple insurance plans — all of which are worse deals than provided through single-payer systems in every other industrialized country in the world. A single-payer system is best suited to use monopsony power to control drug prices and hospital fees. And only a system separated from the workplace and employers’ choices about providing insurance can end the strife caused when some companies in an industry who do provide healthcare benefits to their employees must compete against other companies who do not. The fact is that providing health care through private insurance and managed care organizations for profit is so inefficient that incremental reforms that leave those institutions in control of the health care system simply cannot succeed. Instead, there is a much better deal for health care recipients, health care professionals, taxpayers, and the business community as a whole — single-payer, government insurance.
While there is a great deal to discuss about how best to run a health care system so it is effective, fair, responsive and efficient, there is no way a system in the hands of insurers and managed care organizations trying to maximize profits in a market environment is going to deliver anything other than the mess we have — forty-three million uninsured Americans and counting, along with spiraling costs bankrupting families and businesses alike. In this reform struggle settling for anything less than universal, single-payer coverage is not only immoral, it is impractical as well. Once coverage is complete and a single-payer is controlling costs, progressives can move on to what we do best — make suggestions about how to make health care services more user friendly and equitable through regulation of private providers and democratization of public providers — until a fully public, patient-friendly, well-care system is finally achieved.
Community Development Initiatives: When employers, banks and developers withdraw from areas they consider less profitable than other alternatives, abandoned communities are left without jobs, adequate housing, or a tax base sufficient to provide basic social services. According to the logic of capitalism, when this occurs people should not waste time whining about their fates, but get with the program and move to where the action is. Capitalism tells people they should abandon the neighborhoods they grew up in before they are blighted and move to the suburbs. Capitalism tells people to leave their family and community roots in the “rust belt” and migrate to the “sun belt.” According to the logic of capitalism any who fail to move in time are losers and deserve what they get. Community development initiatives are testimony to peoples’ unwillingness or inability to follow capitalism’s advice.
Many poverty stricken areas in the United States still have community economic development projects. Many others have had community development programs cut back or abandoned. Community development corporations (CDCs), community developoment banks (CDBs), and community land trusts (CLTs) can all be useful parts of reform efforts to revitalize blighted urban neighborhoods and combat urban unemployment, and should be revived and expanded. These projects also afford excellent opportunities for collaboration between economic reformers and organizations fighting against racism and for minority control over their own communities. Whenever the private economy fails to provide some useful good or service we should demand that the government step in to rectify matters. So when the financial sector fails to provide credit on reasonable terms for rebuilding poor neighborhoods in our cities, we should call for both regulation and intervention. We should insist that the government prevent redlining and require adequate reinvestment of savings from poor communities back into those communities by private banks. But we should also call on the government to create public, or semi-public financial institutions whose mandate is to finance renovation of deteriorated housing stock in city ghettos and help local businesses provide employment opportunities. Particularly when the boards of community development corporations and banks are dominated by strong community organizations, they are a better way to tackle market failures that create and maintain urban ghettos than free enterprise zones which buy little development at the cost of large tax breaks for businesses while weakening existing community organizations.
Community development projects reject the Faustian choice between economic abandonment and gentrification by trying instead to catalyze redevelopment that benefits current residents. Community development projects do this either by changing incentives to re-attract capitalist activity or by substituting non-capitalist means of employment and housing for the capitalist activity that departed. Community development initiatives that emphasize the latter course are important areas where people are busy meeting needs capitalism leaves unfulfilled. Community land trusts (CLTs) can play an important role in breaking several destructive aspects of capitalist housing markets. Over a hundred CLTs have been formed in communities in the USA in response to disinvestment and gentrification. The CLT acquires land for community use and takes it permanently off the market. A CLT may rehab existing buildings, build new houses or apartment buildings, or use the land in any other way the community wishes. Residents may own the buildings, but the CLT retains ownership of the land.
More institutional space exists in existing community development projects than progressives presently make good use of. When working in these projects progressives need to reaffirm the right of people to remain in historical communities of their choice, irrespective of the logic of profitability. We need to point out the inefficiency and waste inherent in abandoning perfectly good economic and social infrastructure in existing communities to build socially costly and environmentally damaging new infrastructure in new communities elsewhere. We need to point out the socially destructive effects of speculative real estate bubbles. We need to press for strategies based on non-capitalist employment and housing since this provides more worker, resident, and community security and control than relying on newly courted private capital. And where non-capitalist institutions are not possible or insufficient, progressives should work to maximize community control over employers and developers who benefit from incentives offered by community development initiatives.
Anti-sprawl Initiatives: The flip side of capitalist abandonment of poor, inner city neighborhoods, is environmentally destructive growth, or “sprawl” in outlying areas. But while it is more profitable for developers to spread new homes for upper and middle class families indiscriminately over farm land, this is not what is best for either people or the environment. It is an environmental disaster because it needlessly replaces more green space with concrete and asphalt than necessary. It is a fiscal disaster because for every new dollar in local taxes collected from new residents, because they are spread over a large area lacking in existing services, it costs local governments roughly a dollar and a half to provide new residents with the streets, schools, libraries, and utilities they are entitled to. And it has a disastrous effect on people’s life styles as the “rural character of life” in outlying areas is destroyed for older residents, and those moving into bedroom communities spend more and more of their time on gridlocked roads commuting to work and driving to schools and strip malls at considerable distance from their homes. Nor does sprawl even address the nation’s most pressing housing need — a scandalous shortfall of “affordable” housing.
Instead what is called for is “in growth” and “smart growth.” New housing should be built in old, abandoned neighborhoods whose infrastuctures are renovated, and concentrated in new areas that are environmentally less sensitive. Instead of construction patterns dictated by market forces and developers’ bottom lines, what is called for is development planning through appropriate changes in zoning, combined with impact fees that distribute costs equitably. Instead of allowing developers to only build the kind of housing they find most profitable, they must be required to build a certain percentage of low cost units in exchange for permits to build high cost units. Instead of abandoning farms and green space to the ravishes of market forces, what is needed are preservation trusts, easements, and transfer development rights programs to preserve green space without doing it at farmers’ expense.
The battle to replace sprawl with smart growth is a battle to replace the disastrous effects of market forces on local communities with democratic planning by the residents of those communities themselves. It requires democratic determination of community priorities. It requires challenging conservative defenses of individual property rights no matter how damaging to community interests. It requires clever strategies to win farmer approval for down zoning agricultural land so it cannot be developed, by giving farmers transfer development rights and requiring developers to purchase them in order to build in areas designated for concentrated development. It requires withholding construction permits for high income housing unless accompanied by a sufficient number of affordable units. It requires building coalitions of environmentalists, long-time residents, farmers, and those in need of affordable housing with a package of policies that serve their needs and shields them from shouldering a disproportionate share of the costs of in growth and smart growth, and politically isolating and defeating developers, banks, and wealthy newcomers who favor gentrification and sprawl because it serves their interests. It requires running in growth and smart growth candidates for local offices who spurn contributions from developers for their election campaigns, and who laugh at developer bluffs to boycott localities who insist on protecting community interests.
Of course the slogan “smart growth” can be misappropriated by clever developers, just as “sustainable development” has been misappropriated by clever corporations seeking to disguise their environmentally destructive growth objectives. What matters are the policies, not the labels put on them for salesmanship. And what matters are whose interests are served by those policies, and which groups and organizations dominate a coalition for smart growth. But anti-sprawl campaigns, campaigns for slow growth, in growth, and smart growth, and campaigns to protect disappearing “green space” that are already going on in every major metropolitan area and its surrounding communities afford progressives important organizing opportunities.
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