My latest column for Reuters Opinion argues that the Occupy movement might have enduring significance, particularly if we’re in for a lost decade. Because I didn’t spent much time attacking the premises of Occupy, I sense that some readers might interpret the column as neutral if not favorable to its broad goals, which is far from the case. Rather, I wanted to explain the movement’s appeal in terms that sympathizers would understand, and to emphasize that its claims about the fundamental unfairness of our economic system would grow more plausible in an era of stagnation.
What I failed to reference, however, was an interestingly prescient article Chris Hayes wrote for In These Times in 2005 on how to expand the political left. Long before the financial crisis, Hayes spoke of how moments of personal crisis created “points of access” — i.e., moments during which one might embrace a new worldview, whether religious or cultural or political.
And here’s one point of access that conservative policies are inadvertently expanding: the moments of personal crisis–unmanageable debt, hospitalization without health insurance, lack of mental health services, sudden unemployment–that reveal to Americans that the right’s ideology of “personal responsibility” masks the destruction of a social safety net for middle-and lower-income workers.
With this in mind, Hayes called for the creation of a modern debtors’ movement, organized around a grassroots network of “debt clubs”:
As local groups discovered that credit reform is possible, the agenda might expand toward healthcare reform, since so many bankruptcies are caused by healthcare crises, or debt forgiveness for developing countries suffering from similar fates as American debtors.
With enough time, hard work and resources, one could imagine the development of a real, broad-based and politically powerful constituency in favor of an economically progressive agenda.
Many community groups, like ACORN, are doing work in this vein. But they don’t have the resources of ACT or the Democratic National Committee. And most important, due to their tax status, they are unable to bring their leverage to bear in the electoral arena. The “central challenge for progressive politics,” Paul Wellstone wrote in Conscience of a Liberal, is “how to build the local victories into a strong national and international presence that can crucially define the quality of life.”
In tandem with local organizing, then, the local debt clubs would also need to develop a muscular political program and electoral organization that is independent of, yet operates within, the Democratic Party. Volunteers would be trained as campaign managers and canvassers, and leaders would be groomed for campaigns for local office–alderman, city council, state rep–and campaign on credit reform.
Wellstone’s own Senate campaigns fully embodied a successful hybrid of community organizing and electoral politics. As a liberal college professor, he would seem to be the ripest possible target for any number of right-wing smears. Yet he won statewide office in the swing state of Minnesota twice. Much of his success rested on his base of support among poor and working-class rural voters whom he had been organizing for more than a decade prior to his first campaign in 1990.
Clearly, organizing around debt won’t by itself revive the Democratic Party. It is just one possible example of the kind of issue that can anchor evangelical grassroots organizing.
Suffice it to say, the agenda Hayes articulates is on that I would reject, though I do think that there is room for reform of the bankruptcy process among other things. But it is fair to say that this debtors’ agenda will be more appealing after another half-decade of sluggish wage and household income growth than it would be if we had a more robust economic recovery.
While Occupy hasn’t had a discernible electoral impact, and while it didn’t brandish a detailed manifesto calling for a financial transactions tax or an overhaul of Dodd-Frank, it created a rallying point for a wide range of “left of liberal” ideas that had been marginalized for decades. Occupy attracted social democratic reformists who would not be out of place in Europe as well as anarcho-syndicalists primarily devoted to creating new ways of living outside of the framework of capitalism, many of whom will remain politically active for years to come. Ideas that were once dismissed as ludicrous as politically beyond the pale are now embraced by influential young left-liberals. The left will seize the political opportunities created by mass unemployment if those of us who believe in the virtues of a market society fail to promote job growth.