A baker takes freshly-baked bread from the oven at King Arthur Flour Co., a worker-owned business in Norwich, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Everyone knows the United States faces enormous challenges: unemployment, poverty, global warming, environmental decay—to say nothing of whole cities that have essentially been thrown away. We know the economic system is dominated by powerful corporate institutions. And we know the political system is dominated by those same institutions. Elections occur and major fiscal debates ensue, but most of the problems are only marginally affected (and often in ways that increase the burdens).
The issue is not simply that our situation is worrisome. It is that the nation’s most pressing problems are built into the structure of the system. They are not unique to the current economic slump or the result of partisan bickering, something passing in the night that will go away when we elect forward-looking leaders and pressure them to move in a different direction.
Not only has the economy been stagnating for a long time, but for the average family, things have been bad for a very long time. Real wages for 80 percent of workers have not gone up more than a trivial amount for at least three decades. At the same time, income for the top 1 percent has jumped from roughly 10 percent of all income to more than 20 percent. A recent estimate is that a mere 400 individuals in the United States own more wealth than the bottom 180 million Americans taken together.
Unfortunately, what we call traditional politics no longer has much capacity to alter most of the negative trends. To be clear: I think projects, organizing, demonstrations and related efforts are important. But deep down, most people sense—rightly, in my view—that unless we develop a more powerful long-term strategy, those efforts aren’t going to make much of a dent.
In 2007, people got excited about federal legislation raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. This was obviously good, but the long-term negative trend continued nonetheless. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, was more than $2 higher in 1968. Clearly, when great victories don’t even get us back to where we were more than forty years ago, we need to pay close attention. I support such efforts, but it appears unlikely that strategies aimed at reviving the politics that produced the New Deal and Great Society programs are going to alter the big trends, even if those strategies are intensified by movement building—especially given the decline of labor unions, the power base of traditional progressive politics.
There is, however, a little-noticed twist to this otherwise bleak narrative. Deepening economic and social pain are producing the kinds of conditions from which various new forms of democratization—of ownership, wealth and institutions—are beginning to emerge. The challenge is to develop a broad strategy that not only ends the downward spiral but also gives rise to something different: steadily changing who actually owns the system, beginning at the bottom and working up.
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Consider the evolutionary change developing in that rustiest of Rust Belt states, Ohio. On one unhappy day in September 1977, 5,000 steelworkers lost their jobs, their livelihoods and their futures when Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed down. Such large-scale layoffs were not common in the United States up to that point. The story made the front page of newspapers and led television news across the country. The workers called it Black Monday, and I remember all too well reports of desperate men committing suicide after concluding they could no longer support their families.
A young steelworker named Gerald Dickey had a different idea: Why couldn’t the workers run the facility themselves? Dickey and a group of activist friends teamed up with an ecumenical coalition in Youngstown to demand that the mill be put back to work under worker-community ownership. After a huge organizing effort, they got support from Washington—including the Carter administration, which agreed to allocate $100 million in loan guarantees.