Establishing economic security in the United States will take time and it will not be easy. But if enough people commit themselves to make it happen, it can be done. Developing this commitment must be done patiently, step-by-step, and often person-to-person. With the necessary dedication, we can persuade the Congress and the President to enact a viable economic-security program.
When rebels dumped tea into the Boston harbor to protest a British attempt to control the tea trade, they did not know that in less than one year their rebellion would spark a total rejection of British authority by the First Continental Congress. When the abolitionists took on the anti-slavery cause, they became active because they felt compelled to do so, not because they could foretell the future. When the suffragettes took their campaign into the streets with unruly demonstrations, it was impossible to know that men would eventually give them the right to vote. When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, she inspired a mass movement that ended the segregation of public facilities in the South. When a handful of protesters first objected to the Vietnam War, they had no idea that within a few years 80 percent of the American people would support them. Ten years ago, virtually no one predicted the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When the entire world united to oppose apartheid in South Africa, hardly anyone believed that the white elite would relinquish power relatively peacefully within a few years.
Given these historical surprises, establishing economic security in the richest country on earth is hardly the most unlikely development that could once again surprise the experts and fortune tellers. The most serious barrier to establishing economic security is the widespread perception that it is not possible. As Penn Garvin, a San Francisco-based community organizer and management consultant said, "As long as we think it's too difficult, it won't happen." But if and when enough people are convinced and commit themselves to make it happen, it will. The Berlin Wall of economic insecurity can crumble just as suddenly and unpredictably as the one in Germany did.
When President Lyndon Johnson
declared "unconditional war on poverty" in 1964, he
told the nation, "We know what must be done." But
neither he nor his staff had a plan for how to do it. Twenty
years later, Michael Harrington, the
writer who is credited with having sparked Johnson's War on Poverty,
described this fundamental failure at the highest level of government:
Suddenly I was sitting in a boardroom in the Peace
Corps building [in 1964], and the other people around the table
included cabinet members and advisors to the President of the
United States who had just told us to come up with a program to
end poverty in America. This was, in short, a rendezvous with
one of those famous ideas whose time had come. And yet no one
there knew what to do. The "poverty warriors," as the
press immediately dubbed us, were intellectually impoverished.
Looking back on the civil rights movement, James
Farmer, one of its most prominent leaders,
We did not do any long-range planning. So we were
stuck without a program after the success of our efforts, which
included passage of a civil rights bill and voting rights legislation....
We could have asked ourselves what the job prospects would be
for blacks in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s
and later on. By and large, we didn't do that.... We should
have had a plan.
Those who are concerned about economic security and the threat of poverty in this country need to prepare now so that this history does not repeat itself. We must build a powerful grassroots movement that can not only insist that the federal government guarantee economic security for all, but can also place on the President's desk a concrete program for how to do it. To get to that point, we need a step-by-step action plan for organizing the political power that will be necessary to prevail.
Throughout the world, there is growing resistance to the economic hardship that is being imposed by the international creditor class that insists on extremely low inflation in every country regardless of the consequences (see Chapter Eight). The need for government intervention to protect the general welfare is becoming increasingly clear. The claim that the mythical "free market" in combination with private charity will solve all problems is being widely exposed as false and misleading. Distrust of political leaders and disenchantment with established policies is growing. Activists are becoming more aware that merely organizing on local issues or on the basis of identity groups is not sufficient. Economic hardship and anxiety are spreading into the middle class. All of these conditions suggest that a broad coalition could unite behind a program to establish economic security in the United States.
In certain ways, however, this task will be more difficult than any of the dramatic reforms mentioned above, for none of those movements involved fundamental economic reform that benefited the overwhelming majority of people over against the perceived self-interest of the economic elite. Neither the War of Independence, the abolition of slavery, granting women the right to vote, desegregation of public facilities, stopping the war in Vietnam, the collapse of Communism, nor ending apartheid in South Africa resulted in the direct, immediate expansion of economic opportunity for the majority in a way that reduced the privileges of the dominant elite. Even the success of the U.S. labor movement in the 1930s was primarily limited to a minority of workers. Establishing economic security, on the other hand, will immediately benefit some one-third of the population, indirectly benefit at least another one-third, and require (at least in the short term) a substantial redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor. Most of those elites, therefore, can be expected to resist this movement vehemently.
Their opposition will be motivated not only by dislike of higher taxes. They also realize that a majority of the population united in support of this agenda could proceed to impose their will on other issues. This new force would threaten the political dominance of wealthy elites and raise the specter of further restrictions on their privilege. Partly as a preemptive strike against that threat, most of the wealthy will fight any movement in that direction - just as the National Rifle Association fights any gun control legislation, no matter how limited, to undermine any momentum by their opponents.
Overcoming this opposition will require the development of the most powerful grassroots movement in the history of this country. The mobilization of this political power, in turn, will require widespread personal and social change. As suggested in the previous chapter, certain personal values must be transformed and social divisions must be reconciled. The personal, the social, the political and the economic are tightly interwoven, each supporting the other. Lasting, substantial change must involve change in each of these dimensions.
Individual habits formed in the family carry over into social interactions and shape political convictions. Many parents, for example, routinely use money, toys, or sweets to bribe their children to act decently, rather than teaching them to "do unto others as you would have them dounto you." This practice can lead children into using others for personal gain rather than practicing unconditional love. These habits, in turn, contribute to personal selfishness and collaborating with systemic co-optation, even if others are destitute as a result. For another example, parental abuse of children is well known to produce children who as adults abuse others and exhibit totalitarian political beliefs.
At the same time, social institutions influence private behavior and legitimize public policies. Some labor unions, for example, reinforce the notion that democracy in everyday life is not possible by operating authoritarian bureaucracies. And historically, church leaders have generally encouraged their followers to support governmental policies, as was common with early opposition to the civil rights and Vietnam War protesters. Political officials, in turn, help to shape personal values and rely on social organizations for support. In these and other ways, personal values, social conditioning, and the political process interact to maintain current conditions.
To be successful, each of us must learn to undo
the cultural conditioning imbedded in us by the system. As John
Stuart Mill wrote in 1873, "No great
improvements in the lot of mankind are possible until a great
change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes
of thought." In 1850, Ralph Waldo Emerson
articulated this process of "internalized oppression"
Here is great competition of rich and poor. We live
in a market, where is only so much wheat, or wool, or land; and
if I have so much more, every other must have so much less. I
seem to have no good without breach of good manners. Nobody is
glad in the gladness of another, and our system is one of war,
of an injurious superiority. Every child of the Saxon race is
educated to wish to be first. It is our system; and a man comes
to measure his greatness by the regrets, envies, and hatreds of
The system thus is both external and internal; each is interwoven with and reflects the other. We cannot address the one without addressing the other. We cannot change the world without changing ourselves. "The oppressor must have the cooperation of the oppressed," Patricia Robinson wrote in 1968. "The long-time maintenance of power over others is secured by psychological manipulation and seduction." We need a new approach that will integrate the personal and the political in a way that will touch people profoundly.
In building an economic-security movement, we need to remember why we want economic security. We seek universal economic security not only because this goal is valuable in and of itself. We also seek economic security because, compared to current conditions, a society with economic security will enable its members to be more creative, more fulfilled, more truly themselves, and more at peace - with themselves, friends, family, those perceived as "different," and other nations. Economic insecurity is demoralizing and promotes intolerance and injustice. Economic security will provide a foundation for the empowerment of all.
Most people experience a spiritual foundation to their lives. As individuals, we on occasion lose our self-centeredness and experience a joyous, awesome unity with the source of life. Religious experience of this sort leads us to compassion for others and a desire for social and economic justice. As the singer/songwriter Stevie Wonder summed it up in an interview, "Going beyond yourself, going to a higher source for wisdom and light and praising that source." And we relish and seek community with people who share these values and provide support and encouragement to one another.
But political organizations ignore these needs, though most people identify themselves as spiritual persons. Two-thirds of all Americans belong to a church or synagogue and about half attend services weekly. Eighty percent of people say they pray when they are sick. By reinforcing competition, exploitation, dehumanization, and domination, progressive political organizations undermine their efforts. To achieve economic security, we need to integrate the personal and the political. We need to address personal, social, spiritual and political needs in a way that effectively speaks to the whole person.
Economic security is both a goal and a means to these other goals. Our methods need to be consistent with our goals. As political people, we need to "come out of the closet" with our spirituality and infuse our political organizations with what we have learned in our spiritual pursuits - in a way that respects differences without trying to impose any particular religion on anyone.
Personal empowerment is a never-ending process. None of us is ever complete. We constantly struggle, for example, with learning how we can transform negative tendencies toward prejudice, arrogance, and domination. Toward this end, we need democratic political organizations that support us in these efforts. Our organizations need to serve as models of the kind of society we want to create.
Changing the system can begin at any point - with the personal (the inner, subjective experience of the individual, including thoughts and feelings), the social (individuals' interactions with others), or the political (efforts to influence public policy). But if one follows the path to its logical conclusion, action in any one of these three arenas leads to the need for action in the other two.
To be most effective, the process of change must not get stuck in any one of these three arenas, as is often the case. Political activists, for example, should not ignore the need for unlearning personal attitudes that undermine their effectiveness. And religious persons devoted to spiritual development should not evade the need to change public policies that interfere with personal growth. Nor should devoted family members imagine that a sufficient sense of community can be found within the limits of blood relations. All three realms - the personal, the social and the political - need to be engaged at the same time. Building a political movement for universal economic security will require a commitment to the personal and social needs of the members of any such movement, as well as their desire to change political policy.
Beginning with the personal, the need to move beyond deeply-ingrained prejudice, including bias against the poor, is critical. Prejudice comes in many shapes and forms. No one has escaped this conditioning completely. Middle-class and affluent people often regard poor people as "undeserving." And poor people tend to internalize these judgments and blame themselves for their condition.
Individuals can slowly change these attitudes to some degree. A good first step is for people to simply acknowledge to themselves that they have these tendencies. Change begins with self-examination. Particularly revealing are "gut reactions." Many people, for example, immediately assume that the speaker is "stupid" when they hear a Southern accent, or become uncomfortable when they see a severely disabled person in a wheelchair, or react with fear when suddenly seeing a young African American male dressed like a "gangster" approach them, or become uncomfortable when they see two gay or lesbian lovers kiss in public, or say to themselves "go get a job" when they see a panhandler. Even when these judgments have nothing directly to do with economic issues, it is important for us to deal with them. All of these attitudes divide us from allies we need. And being prejudicial toward any one group of people can easily lead to prejudice against others.
Admitting to oneself that one experiences negative emotions such as these can help prevent them from influencing one's behavior. Human beings cannot always control their spontaneous emotional reactions; but they can control their actions. And simply being aware of these reactions can reduce their frequency. Talking about these feelings with close friends can also help. So can self-conscious exposure to and interaction with people who provoke uncomfortable feelings, especially if it is done in a safe, supportive environment, such as volunteering in a social-service program. Exploring different cultures through music, movies, and books can facilitate understanding and foster respect as well.
In these situations, it is often instructive to imagine yourself in the same situation as the other person and to consider how your behavior would likely be similar if you were in his or her shoes. As political activist Wilson Riles, Jr. has expressed it, "Prejudice comes from ignorance, and it can be overcome through knowledge and experience." Experience itself is a source of learning.
Any effort to establish economic security needs to include this commitment to overcome prejudice. The widespread use of the slang word, "dis," as short for disrespect, shows the importance of this issue with many poor people, for it reveals that sensitivity to the lack of respect is widespread. The pervasiveness of disrespect in this culture is reflected by a 1994 survey that found that 61 percent of all teenagers believe that "most boys you know think of girls as lesser than themselves." Some thirty years ago, Aretha Franklin struck a nerve on the same issue with her plea for R-E-S-P-E-C-T. All of us need to examine ourselves regularly and learn to deal with judgmental attitudes we learn from others and the media. The goal is not to be perfect and free of prejudice. No one is pure. But we can become more self-aware and not allow these emotions to determine our beliefs or our conduct.
All people are equal in the eyes of God (or the Great Spirit, or Allah, or whatever name one prefers for that which cannot be named). From the perspective of the universe, each individual is but a small leaf on an enormous tree. At the same time, each individual is sacred, part-and-parcel of the miracle of life. Whenever we pay attention, an awesome sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe can easily overwhelm us. Science and religion have reconciled their differences. Astronomers tells us that the entire universe shares the same origin, the same force that energizes life, and the same structure that provides order to what would otherwise be total randomness and chaos. Facing this awesome mystery honestly is a humbling experience that quickly puts anyone with courage and understanding "in their place," keenly aware of their own limits (including death) and their need for support.
The world is amazing precisely because each individual is so small. By accepting our limits, we embrace infinity and awaken to a sense of playing a role in a cosmic drama: co-creators of reality. This awareness leads to a commitment to working with others, rather than for them - with humility, in solidarity with all people.
Arrogance - the feeling of superiority - is pernicious and widespread. In this competitive culture, no one escapes the sin of pride. Self-esteem is often rooted in feeling superior to others. Conversations often consist of putting down others. Teenagers may naturally develop a sense of self by banding together in cliques, or gangs, or fraternities and sororities. Unfortunately, many, if not most, adults maintain the same habits. They rank others according to their job, their looks, how they dress, what neighborhood or city they live in, and how much money they make.
Those who are successful believe that they deserve their privileges because they are more intelligent, harder working, better bred, or of better blood. They discount the advantages provided them by their parents, or the luck they encountered along the way, or the fact that they got where they did by ruthlessness, bending the rules, and breaking the law. They ignore the reality that "there but for the grace of God, go I." They believe that they have been fortunate because they deserve it. As Wilson Riles Jr. said, "Their reality is that God has blessed them to be better than someone else because of who they are. They have closed the circle on the argument."
Political activists often fall victim to similar forms of arrogance. Infighting and "holier than thou" attitudes are common in grassroots political circles. These elitist assumptions on the part of activists often limit their effectiveness. Governor George Wallace, while campaigning for President in 1972, tapped a reservoir of resentment toward political elitism by ranting about "pointy-headed intellectuals." The success of his populist appeals reveals a serious problem that afflicts many progressives and indicates that the personal is political.
The dedication that is required to sustain political work often involves a fanaticism that contradicts the humanism that motivates political commitment in the first place. Political elitism thus reproduces the elitism of the wealthy and thereby reinforces "the system" that relies on divisions among the people.
Intellectuals, activists, and professionals easily lose touch with the real world and learn to despise ordinary people. Their lack of familiarity breeds contempt, partly because the main cultural images of regular folks are negative stereotypes seen on television and in movies. Social interaction with people from other classes is normally limited to the workplace and tends to be artificial, for most people respond differently to people from different class backgrounds. This superficial role-playing prevents mutual understanding; people don't see others acting naturally and honestly. In particular, the "professional" role automatically throws up a barrier, partly because others assume that the professional has an attitude of superiority.
College-educated people are particularly prone to hold mistaken assumptions about the nature of intelligence. They assume that they have maneuvered through the rituals of academia because they are more "intelligent" and that their superior intelligence means they are fundamentally "better" or "more valuable" human beings. They learn a certain way of talking that they use to win verbal battles, and they constantly use their wealth of stored knowledge to intimidate others. This attitude ignores the fact that there are many different kinds of intelligence. And it greatly inflates the value of particular kinds of intellectual gymnastics, and reinforces the assumption that poor people deserve their fate because they did not study hard enough.
Most people are kind, intelligent, good-hearted people who are just trying to get by, provide for their children, and enjoy life. They merely want to live decently and to "do no harm." A strong case can be made that a simple life of this sort is an enlightened life-style of the highest order. Given the dehumanization and stunted personal development that usually results from being groomed for superlative performance, being "nothing special" has its appeal. Some people are not satisfied with normal routines and choose to aim for extraordinary goals of one kind or another. But this decision does not mean that they are "better" than those who do not.
Activists from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes express other forms of arrogance. One problem is the assertion that those who have been oppressed by a particular institution should have a greater voice concerning how to change that institution. Some activists who have been homeless, for example, argue that homeless or formerly homeless people should control and direct all organizations challenging homeless policies - that others should simply accept and support what those leaders want to do. But this attitude violates the principle of equality and undermines the possibility of mutually-respectful coalitions of people from different backgrounds.
Those who have been relatively powerless certainly must be fully represented in activist organizations. And people with similar experiences often need to meet separately, whether in caucuses, self-help groups, or independent organizations. But to change established policies, diverse people must eventually come together as co-equals with mutual respect and allow leadership to emerge based on current contributions, not past history.
Those of us who want to build an effective movement for economic security need to steadily unlearn our tendencies toward arrogance and foster within ourselves genuine humility. We need to learn how to work with people rather than for them. As an aboriginal Australian told Jim Wallis, author of The Soul of Politics, "If you're coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
This process of personal change seldom involves a radical, total conversion. Most often, there are severe limits to how much we can change ourselves into the kind of persons we want to be. But it is important to do what we can and allow our natural sympathy for others to express itself.
A major reason for divisions among people is the lust for power. When Henry Kissinger said "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," he failed to point out that his drug of choice is addictive and distorts perception. The system perpetuates itself, driven by the energy of those who crave power. The players change but the game remains the same: the quest for power over others. Enough is never enough. The tolerance level steadily rises and the power junkie must have more. The same dynamic is played out in City Halls, business offices, and grassroots political organizations throughout the country: back-stabbing, power plays, and manipulations dedicated to accumulating power for personal satisfaction.
The means become the ends. People become fascinated with the illusion of power, idolize "making a difference" and "getting something done," forget the original purpose for their activities, and seldom discuss long-term goals. People fight symbolic battles for the satisfaction of scoring another victory or preventing an "enemy" from doing so. Tinkering with the system to satisfy one's ego becomes routine. They apply Band-Aids to cancerous sores and use the powerless, the excluded, the poor, the starving, and the middle class for the sake of some minor reform that they hail as a major event. Even for those who begin with idealistic goals, this quest for personal power often overwhelms genuine democratic political activity - the personal, social, and political empowerment of all people.
The empowerment of people should be the focus of political action. We need to concentrate attention on this one purpose: serving the entire community. Compassion for others must remain at the core of our motivation. If stepping aside to allow someone else to take the stage will increase the effectiveness of one's project, it is important to step aside. Sacrificing others for the sake of one's ego is intolerable. Each individual needs to avoid being seduced by the hope of personal power and stay focused on the ultimate goal of power democratically-controlled. One's own empowerment is important, but its importance must not be distorted by selfishness.
This form of personal change, learning to escape the lure of personal power, is an essential ingredient in a political strategy to establish economic security. We must be committed to encouraging and supporting the exercise of leadership by others. In one form or another, everyone can be a leader by helping to define what needs to be done, and helping to make it happen.
Sustaining a movement for economic security will require the participation of individuals who are strong, independent, and life-affirming. These capacities can be summed up as "self-determination."
The ego, the sense of "I," is like a sailor steering a small boat in a strong wind. Below the ego lies the self, which is rooted in the vast unconscious mind, filled with reflexes, instincts, awareness, purposes, and passions that remain largely a mystery. This unconscious mind exerts a powerful force on individuals and society and offers a resource that can be tapped by a self that is fully alive and not unduly restrained by the ego.
If we are ego-centered, thinking in terms of "number
one," we lose touch with these deeper energies. But if we
relax our ego and allow our deeper self to emerge, we can find
a strength that is liberating. This all-embracing self-determination
differs distinctly from the rugged individualism typically associated
with America. As Page Smith said:
Individualism, with its rapacious and exploitative attitude toward the world, is the antithesis of that individuality which is the authentic self realized with a genuine community.
Poets, artists, musicians, songwriters, and dancers often speak of magical moments when they become a conduit for the expression of pre-existing realities. Athletes, as well, speak of getting into a non-thinking "zone" where they allow their instincts to take over. More familiar to ordinary life are experiences of intuition, such as "sensing" the right thing to say or do. Also telling are insights or messages that many people receive during their dreams. A similar phenomenon is found when people experience "a calling" to devote themselves to a particular endeavor that cannot be explained rationally. Dancing and making love are common moments when ego-centeredness fades into the background and a spontaneous, trance-like joy is experienced: "a feeling wondrous and lit up inside, with a sense of everlasting life," as Van Morrison phrased it in his song "On Hyndford Street." This joyous trust in our deepest instincts and intuitions, the Holy Spirit within, is a basic part of spiritual awakening.
In his classic essay, "Self-Reliance,"
Emerson expressed the point as follows:
In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis
cannot go, all things find their common origin. For the sense
of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul,
is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time,
from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same
source whence their life and being proceed.... Here is the fountain
of action and thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration
which giveth man wisdom and which cannot be denied without impiety
and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which
makes us receive of its truth and organs of its activity. When
we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves,
but allow a passage to its beams.
The historian Arnold J. Toynbee
in 1955 called for a religious revival rooted "in terms that
hold good for the religions of the Indian family (Buddhism
and Hinduism), as well as for those of the Palestinian
family (Judaism, Christianity
and Islam)." He summarized his call as follows:
I would define true religion as being right belief
and right feeling taking effect in right action. Without right
action, right feeling and right belief have no virtue in them
By right belief I mean recognizing that (a) we human beings understand
and control only a tiny fraction of the universe and (b) that
there is a presence in the universe which is spiritually greater
than we are and which is Absolute Reality.
By right feeling I mean awe in the presence of Absolute Reality.
By right action I mean trying to bring one's self-centered self
into conformity with this spiritual presence behind the phenomena.
This form of self-determination, contrary to the ethos of "making it" at the expense of others, flows naturally from a deep appreciation of all life. Humility and respect for the equal value of each person, as discussed above, lead to self-respect, a dedication to self-determination, and an openness to the spirit within.
These various attitudes are different aspects of the same reality: the love of life. A consistent commitment to this principle leads to a rejection of all forms of domination (and submission). If honored throughout society, genuine self-determination would result in a total transformation of the world as we know it. One consequence of truly affirming self-determination would be a dedication to providing all people with the opportunity to secure minimal material necessities, for the lack of these basics hampers self-development.
Learning how to become increasingly self-reliant, to take care of oneself (while drawing on support from others), to follow the beat of one's own drummer, to see the world with one's own eyes, to trust oneself - these are necessary steps toward democratic social change. The more we become "inner-directed," the less others can manipulate us with rewards and punishments, psychological or material. People in positions of power, for example, typically stroke the egos of less powerful people with praise in order to win their favor. And in various ways, representatives of the system confer awards and honors on good-hearted people who work within the system without challenging existing public policies. These appeals to the ego seduce people away from political action and serve to reinforce the status quo. This seduction need not be conscious on the part of the seducers for it to be effective; it's just the way the system operates. By becoming less "other-directed," less dependent on approval by others, and more in touch with our own deeper selves, we will be better prepared to sustain a prolonged challenge to deeply-entrenched public policies.
Contrary to the popular assumption that one must be either selfish or selfless, there is no irreconcilable conflict between self-fulfillment and social justice. Each is necessary and complements the other. We cannot really love ourselves without loving others or love others without loving ourselves. Social justice is not possible without strong individuals; being strong as an individual requires compassion for others, for lack of compassion fosters self-doubt and self-destructiveness. It is not either/or or a matter of which comes first. "Love your neighbor as yourself." Or, love yourself as your neighbor.
This sense of universal sacredness is expressed
by Black Elk in John Niehardt's
Black Elk Speaks:
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all.... And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
A political movement for universal economic security, therefore, needs to encourage its members to shed the layers of social conditioning and discover their own, innermost desires and needs. Political "quid pro quos," for example - "if you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" - violate this principle. We need to encourage people to do only what they really want and need to do, rather than being bribed in any way. This self-discovery can lead to understanding that if we sacrifice others for selfish reasons, we hurt ourselves. We take care of our personal needs - because we deserve it and because we can better serve others if we do so. Developing this trust in self, rooted in service to others, promotes greater self-confidence. And greater self-confidence enables activists to take more chances, which is essential for an economic-security movement to be successful.
Affirming self-determination for all requires rejecting
the selfish accumulation of extravagant wealth. Poor people are
not free in the true sense of the word, for their struggle to
survive interferes with personal growth and normal participation
in social affairs. As described by Michael Harrington:
[The poor] are internal exiles who, almost inevitably,
develop attitudes of defeat and pessimism and who are therefore
excluded from taking advantage of new opportunities.
Almost two centuries earlier, Samuel Johnson made the point with a touch of wit: "Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable and others extremely difficult." And John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, stated succinctly: "Men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread." Thus, it is hypocritical for those who believe in self-determination to keep financial resources for themselves far in excess of what they need.
But hypocrisy is only part of the problem; individual greed also promotes oppressive politics. The personal addiction to consumerism and materialism leads to political policies that force most people to suffer so that the lucky few can acquire far more than they need. We instead need to "live simply that others may simply live," as expressed by many environmentalists. Overcoming materialism in this way will encourage broader support for political policies that strengthen economic security for all.
Greed also interferes with effective social change in that making money usually takes time, which reduces the time available for engaging in social and political change. Large financial rewards often seduce people away from pursuits that are more creative, more rewarding, and more beneficial to society. Each person needs to carefully evaluate this issue and seriously consider if the price that is paid for a higher income is really worth it.
The point, however, is not self-sacrifice. Taking care of yourself and providing for your children is important. The basic pleasures of life should be appreciated fully. "Rest and recreation" is a standard part of even the most severe military routine. In Germany during the rise of Hitler, Wilhelm Reich argued in The Mass Psychology of Fascism that people who are unable to let themselves go, express their feelings freely, and experience the complete release of emotional and sexual tension tend to be uptight, repressed, and authoritarian personalities. Often workaholics, they tend to be judgmental toward those with different values, whom they consider inferior. Their pent-up emotions tend to explode in bursts of irrational rage. Personal repression of this sort leads to oppressive political attitudes. Any political strategy aimed at social liberation must also promote personal liberation. Political activists need to truly take care of themselves in the full sense of the word so that they will be less likely to release their frustrations by attacking others, including fellow activists.
Many who have indulged in the material world extensively, however, report that it falls short and leaves a certain emptiness if pursued exclusively. Those who have experienced the gratification that is associated with a deep commitment to others often describe a satisfaction that is deeper and more lasting. These rewards come as a by-product of compassion for others. If one pursues these rewards directly, they vanish; but if one truly commits oneself to others, a profound peace-of-mind may emerge, by the grace of God. Most people have made this discovery in the love they feel for the members of their immediate family. The challenge today is to extend that love to all humanity and make the world the best possible environment for all generations. This leap of faith must be taken without any guarantee. Then, with persistence, the false gods of consumerism, materialism, and selfishness may fade away to reveal a deeper reality.
The more this kind of personal transformation takes place, the more promising will be the prospects for insuring economic security. The participants in the economic-security movement need to guard against being sucked into the false satisfactions of a greedy and materialistic consumer society, without going overboard into destructive self-denial. In this way, we can find more time for political work and demonstrate to others that alternative life-styles are feasible.
Another personal issue that change-agents need to examine is anger. Finding peace of mind through compassion for others does not mean that anger disappears. On the contrary, awareness of needless suffering provokes outrage. This anger needs to be acknowledged and expressed, for bottling it up can result in apathy and self-hatred. Unfortunately, however, we often allow ourselves to become angry when it is not justified, or vent our frustrations on innocent bystanders, or dump our anger on friends in unfair, destructive ways. These outbursts of hostility produce divided, ineffective organizations.
A common example is when we become angry at others for not doing what we want them to do, such as not voting the "right way" at a meeting. Parents normally give infants what they want when they want it. As adults, we often continue to look for others to satisfy our desires on demand and get angry when they don't. Disappointment leads to pain, which leads to anger. These reactions are understandable. But they are not automatic. We can remind ourselves that others have the right to self-determination and that it is important to consistently support that right. We can see the situation from the other person's perspective, which often leads to understanding that we would have done the same thing. We can ask ourselves if we are really angry about something that happened earlier in our lives and are using this incident as an excuse to release that anger. And we can tell ourselves that just because we are disappointed, it does not follow that we must be angry at those who simply did what they needed to do - without infringing on the liberty of anyone. Reminding ourselves of these points can lead to our anger subsiding into the background and compassion coming forward. Singer-songwriter Ferron commented: I remember years ago learning that underneath anger was sorrow. So why stop halfway when you can go to the bottom of the ocean? But to push that image a little further, when you jump into a pool,as soon as you hit the bottom and your toes touch, you come right back up. Sorrow is like that.
A particularly deadly form of anger is rooted in jealousy. Most of us are understandably angry about having been the victim of bad luck. When we encounter others who appear to have been more fortunate, we tend to be jealous and resentful. We can easily allow this resentment to interfere with having a positive relationship with people we envy. We may be intimidated by them or we may criticize them unfairly. But it is important to rise above these tendencies and remember that others are not to blame for having been the beneficiary of good fortune, anymore than we are to blame for our misfortune.
Taking a close look at what we are really angry about can be revealing. When we do, we often discover that our anger is rooted in having been abused by people in power, whether at home, in school, or elsewhere. This abuse usually involves the unfair denial of liberty. But when we ask why those individuals violated our right to self-determination, we usually see that they themselves were under great pressure to do so or learned those patterns from having been victims of abuse themselves.
All of us grow up in a society based on domination, oppression, and exploitation. We reproduce what we have experienced, to one degree or another. Awareness of these underlying causes can lead us to direct our anger at the system of domination that operates to preserve the wealth and power of the few at the expense of the many.
Staying in touch with these reasons for our anger can be a source of energy that we can use to motivate ourselves to engage in the persistent work that is needed for political organizing. In this way, we can channel our anger constructively, rather than merely releasing it wildly in a way that may be satisfying in the short run but offers no long-term benefits.
Political activists have a particular weakness with regard to anger. We tend to scapegoat individuals, usually political figures, by blaming them for unjust public policies. This "ventilating" may feel good and targeting individuals as "enemies" may help to mobilize and motivate political protest. But it is usually an inaccurate, misleading description of the real situation and eventually backfires. The counterproductive consequences of basing political action on anger is reflected in the histories of political changes that have been achieved by military force. These revolutions have usually resulted in the assumption of power by a new vengeful elite that severely compromised its announced aims.
The self-righteous "trashing" of political leaders is a common form of violence in the political world. This violence begets violence and more and more people become disenchanted with politics and retreat to their own private world, where the atmosphere is not so spoiled with meanness. Rhetorical harangues turn off potential supporters, who stay away from political activity because of the relentless negativity they hear.
Individuals are not to blame. The system, the interlocking set of major institutions in this society, is the problem, and it is self-perpetuating. If any one individual in an apparent position of power drops out, he or she is easily replaced. If that same individual actively opposes established policies and tries to change them fundamentally, he or she is removed. The temptation is strong to demonize symbolic individuals and waste valuable time ranting and raving about them instead of preparing a more effective struggle, grounded in love, against the public policies that hold the system together.
Trashing people in power leads to doing the same to friends who become "enemies." These personal attacks undermine the unity that is needed to build an effective movement. Political activists, first of all, need to learn how to express their anger constructively and reasonably, without unloading long-held resentments on allies. Discussing reactions to specific events without resorting to name-calling and generalizations, for example, is one useful approach. Secondly, political organizations need to build campaigns that are motivated not by anger and scapegoating, but by love and demands for positive change in political and economic policy. On both counts, we need to re-shape our personal attitudes and values if we want to sustain an effective, broad-based movement over the long haul.
Another ingredient in the strategy of personal change proposed here is a dedication to self-directed learning. Education in this country typically consists of memorizing what teachers tell students to learn. This submission to the teacher's authority instills in students an attitude that carries over into adulthood. They learn to do what "the boss" or "the leader" tells them to do and they learn to trust "the experts." This approach carries with it two problems. Firstly, students fail to build the self-confidence that comes from deep reflection and self-directed exploration. Secondly, the experts are often wrong.
Ordinary people need to carefully study issues related to economic insecurity. Though the basic facts are straightforward, the experts confuse the issues. Learning to understand and counter these mystifications takes time. Ultimately, the most important learning involves each person pursuing their own interests and gradually expanding their understanding on their own.
The members of any truly democratic movement for
social change, in their commitment to self-learning, should heed
the following poem by Bertolt Brecht:
Praise of Learning
Learn, man in the asylum!
Don't be frightened to ask, comrade!
Learn the elementary things!
For those whose time has come
it is never too late!
Learn the ABC. It won't be enough,
but learn it! Don't be dismayed by it!
Begin! You must know everything.
You must take over the leadership.
Learn, man in the prison!
Learn, woman in the kitchen!
Learn, sixty year olds!
You must take over the leadership.
Seek out the school, you who are homeless!
Acquire knowledge, you who shiver!
You who are hungry, reach for the book: it is a weapon.
You must take over the leadership.
Don't be talked into anything.
Check for yourself!
What you do not know yourself
you don't know.
Scrutinize the bill,
it is you who must pay it.
Put your finger on each item,
ask: How did this get here?
You must take over the leadership
Learn, man in the asylum!
Don't be frightened to ask, comrade!
Perhaps the most important personal attitude needed by political activists is a commitment to what Buddhists call "right action" - or "doing the right thing" regardless of consequences. This approach differs from Western pragmatism, which demands immediate, clear results. The obsession with "making a difference," however small, tends to reinforce the underlying concentration of wealth and power, for people get great satisfaction from helping a few individuals cope or pushing through some limited legislative reform and stop there. These measures can relieve suffering and help build a base for more fundamental change. But we must do more; we must also substantially expand economic opportunity for low- and middle-income people.
The other extreme - wild and reckless action with no concern for effectiveness - is equally short-sighted. We must make every effort to be as effective as possible. But we should not be distracted by false promises. We must keep our eyes on the prize, on what is really important at this time in history - establishing an economic bill of rights that will guarantee everyone minimal economic security. Tiny steps in that direction are not sufficient. We must demand that major progress be achieved quickly. No one can know for sure that we will be successful. But we must do everything that we can to make this dream come true.
Nurturing positive change in our personal feelings and attitudes, as discussed in Part One, influences our social interactions with others. By becoming more understanding and compassionate, we are better able to relate to others with understanding and compassion. Caring interactions with others, in turn, foster further humanistic change within ourselves in a positive upward spiral.
In these ways, translating what we learn in our process of personal change into our social relationships strengthens those relationships and further enhances our personal growth. No one is an island; we are all mountain tops connected by the earth. Even religious hermits draw on support from a community of fellow believers. Sooner or later, periods of solitude come to an end and people use the energy and understanding gathered during retreat to carry them forward in the social realm. Human beings are social creatures and desire a sense of community. Each of us has a compelling need to be part of a social group that adds meaning to our lives. Prolonged isolation without purposeful social involvement leaves people feeling empty, down on themselves, and hostile toward others.
Unfortunately, however, modern society offers limited
opportunities for meaningful community involvement. Reflecting
on his interactions with members of grassroots advocacy organizations
in the Merrimack Valley outside Boston, the novelist George Packer
The longing is for community. In the two bitterly
cold months I spent with the project this winter, the word [community]
was repeated so often that its meaning seems as various as the
people involved. It meant a neighborhood, city or universe, what
people had when they were growing up and lost somewhere along
the way, leaving a void that's been filled by the information
superhighway, 9 mm. handguns and jobs at Wal-Mart.
The current struggle to define the role of the family highlights the search for community. The increased mobility associated with industrialization contributed greatly to the breakdown of the intergenerational, extended family. Prior to urbanization, three or four generations of farm families, with branches, typically lived in the same area, near one another. They shared each others' joys and burdens and were the source of enormous mutual support. Holidays and family reunions were special occasions, when people celebrated their kinship. The local church was a major social center, bringing people together to reflect on their daily struggles and honor their faith. The extended family and the church formed overlapping communities of good will and support. Members of these communities freely provided a sympathetic ear, timely advice, and assistance when needed.
With the growth of the consumer society, however, corporations encouraged the growth of the nuclear family - husband, wife and children in a suburban house where they barely know their neighbor's name. Not coincidentally, this arrangement has required each small nuclear family to purchase its own furniture, appliances, and automobiles - rather than sharing these expenses with an extended family. Today, families are scattered, move frequently, and seldom belong to the same church. When they do get together, it's often brief and superficial. This experiment has not been successful and appears to be short-lived. In 1960, 80 percent of all households consisted of married couples, but by 1992, that percentage had fallen to less than 60 percent. Adjusted for the change in the mix of people according to age, from 1970 to 1992, the percentage of the adult population that was never married increased by 50 percent and the percentage that was divorced almost tripled.
To some degree, the worsening of economic conditions has accelerated this decline in the nuclear family. Since men are increasingly unable to fill the traditional role of breadwinner, marriage rates have fallen even more than they would have if the wages of male workers had not declined.
But widespread prosperity will not rescue the nuclear family for a large portion of the population. Relying on the members of one's own immediate family for virtually all of one's emotional support, as dictated by the traditional model, does not work for many people. The search for new definitions of commitment and new styles of living will likely intensify as society becomes increasing mobile. Marriage rates might rebound, but if so, it will likely be within the context of new forms of community, which offer a deeper satisfaction than that which can be provided by the nuclear family alone. A compassionate involvement in shaping public policy will likely be a common element in these new communities.
Historically, one's work has often provided meaning to one's life. Since the beginning of factory-style production, however, even in places that have been unionized, the workplace has typically been run in a top-down, military style. This arrangement interferes with the development of a deep sense of community. Nevertheless, until recently, employees were usually loyal to the company and found both satisfaction and good friendships at work. Employers also were often loyal to their employees and felt some obligation to employ older workers until they retired. In the current era of downsizing, however, this loyalty, both on the part of employer and employee, is eroding. Finding a sense of meaning at work has become even more difficult.
Modern societies are based on domination and submission. "Father knows best" and "always do what you're told" are sayings that symbolize this process. Ambition has been reduced to moving as far up the ladder of success as possible. At each rung on the ladder, one must take orders from above and give orders to those below. It has been assumed that every group must have one leader who is "in charge." This hierarchical style of social organization has pervaded private households as well, where the husband has typically assumed the power to "put his foot down" if and when he chooses to do so. This dominance is reflected in the fact that, until recently, most states declared that it was legal for a husband to rape his wife.
Human societies, however, have not always been authoritarian and patriarchal. Prior to the emergence of agriculture, most cultures were cooperative and egalitarian. And throughout the history of civilization, various subcultures have maintained relatively democratic life styles within the context of authoritarian cultures. In the 1960s, the Beat poet Gary Snyder referred to this tradition as "the Great Subculture," which he described as follows:
[It] has been attached in part to the official religions but is different in that it transmits a community style of life, with an ecstatically positive vision of spiritual and physical love; and is opposed for very fundamental reasons to the Civilization Establishment. It has taught that man's natural being is to be trusted and followed; that we need not look to a model or rule imposed from outside in searching for the center; and that in following the grain, one is being truly "moral." ....How do they recognize each other?.... The symbol is a bright and tender look; calmness and gentleness, freshness and ease of manner.
There are signs, especially as a result of the women's movement, that this alternative culture, dedicated to sharing power, is leading to new forms of community. Although, as mentioned earlier, most teen-age boys believe that boys consider girls as "lesser than themselves," most girls believe that "most girls you know think of boys as equals." Laws against spousal rape are being enacted. Sexual harassment and domestic violence are receiving increased attention and are being legitimized as serious issues. The movement toward greater democracy is being extended into the workplace as well, with growing support for workplace democracy and employee ownership of corporations. Without rejecting positive traditional values or flaunting alternative values in an insulting manner, we need to encourage the spread of these democratic values throughout society.
The quest for community that is democratic and supportive
is reflected in many arenas. Public parks and recreation centers
provide organized activities and a space for people with common
interests to gather and form spontaneous friendships. Self-help
groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, enable people with similar
problems to share experiences, advice, and encouragement. Book
discussion clubs and "salons" have grown in popularity.
Grassroots cultural organizations, including theater companies,
get by on a shoestring while relying on volunteers because people
want to unite with others to express themselves creatively. Outdoor-activity
groups enable strangers to connect and pursue their common interests.
Even relatively passive group activities, such as going to sporting
events, music concerts, and movies, involve participating in a
community with others who share a similar enthusiasm. The need
to "lose oneself" in passionate, communal activity is
compelling. A strategy to establish economic security needs to
recognize and affirm this need for a supportive sense of community.
The next chapter addresses how we can apply these principles
to our political work.
Personal conversation, April, 1995.
Sheldon H. Danziger and Daniel H. Weinberg (eds.), Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn't, Harvard University Press, 1986, 1.
Michael Harrington, The New American Poverty, Penguin Books, 1984, 12.
Bob Herbert, "Riding to Freedom," The New York Times, 28 June 1995, A15.
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, 1873
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Uses of Great Men," Representative Men, 1850.
Patricia Robinson, Poor Black Women, 1958, in Betty Roszak and T. Toszak, eds., Masculine/Feminine: Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women, 1969.
Quoted in David Ritz, "Never-Ending Song of Peace," Rolling Stone, 13-27, July 1995, 127.
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1994, Table 85
"ABC World News Tonight," American Broadcasting Company, 20 December 1995.
Personal communication, 5 August 1994.
Tamar Lewin, "Traditional Family Favored By Boys, Not Girls, Poll Says," The New York Times, 11 July 1994, A1/C10.
Personal conversation, May, 1994.
Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics, 1994, 8.
Page Smith, The Historian and History, Knopf, 1964, 242.
Van Morrison, "On Hyndford Street," Hymns to the Silence (Cassette Two), Caledonia Productions Ltd., 1991.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance," in The Portable Emerson, Carl Bode ed., Penguin Books, 1946, 149-50.
Arnold J. Toynbee, "The Basic Questions And Answers" The New York Times Magazine, 20 February 1955, 69-76.
Black Elk, in John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, 1961.
Michael Harrington, appendix (1) to The Other America: Poverty in the United States, 1962.
Samuel Johnson, 7 December 1782, in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 2, 1859.
From a poster. Illustration¾Domingo Ulloa. Design¾Lincoln Cushing. Printing¾Inkworks.
George Packer, "Down in The Valley," The Nation, 27 June 1994, 900-4.
Economic Report of the President: 1993, Table 65.
Ibid., Table 65.
Gary Snyder, "Why Tribe," Earth House Hold, New Direction, 1969, 115-6.
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