The Problem of Collective Action in the United States
Picking up from yesterday’s post, the central problem I have attempted to apprehend from so many angles has to do with political behavior — especially collective action in the context of the United States over the past 50 or so years. How and why do people act together collectively to advance or defend their common interests? How and why do people not act together for the same — or even resist collective action that would seem to benefit them?
In my estimation, social movements in the United States do not presently have anywhere close to the capacity needed to mount sustained challenges to the entrenched power structures we are up against, at least when it comes to issues for which change would threaten the current economic order (e.g. progressive taxation, public education, public health care, cutting military spending, public elections, corporate personhood, financial regulation, global warming, and so on). Thus, Occupy Wall Street has been something of a beacon of hope to many. But momentarily seizing the national narrative didn’t send the bankers and Wall Street executives packing. A far more massive movement will be needed if we are to actually challenge the formidable power of capital.
Some of my friends and comrades in Occupy Wall Street are, in my opinion, overly dismissive of many of the progressive social change organizations and institutions of the past few decades, often lumping together longstanding community organizations, labor unions, and the Democratic Party into a static and historically useless monolith. It’s almost as if some of them believe that there hasn’t been any collective agency worth mentioning in the United States in the past few decades, prior to Occupy Wall Street. It’s doubtful that anyone would argue this explicitly, but the sometimes messianic attitude has certainly rubbed some allies and potential allies the wrong way.
OWS (more accurately, parts of OWS) isn’t alone in these sorts of over-generalizations. It’s difficult to know how to celebrate limited and compromised victories. But I think it’s important that we figure out how to recognize gains, while also recognizing how far we have yet to go. Despite my conviction that progressives need to build far bigger social movements in order to accomplish the bold changes we imagine, it still behooves us to recognize the meaningful gains social movements have made over the past half-century in the United States. Notably, African Americans, women, LGBTQ people, and other disenfranchised identity groups have, through struggle, won important rights and improvements to their daily lives.
In this same time period, however, plutocrats consolidated control of the economic system and of the political structures that once at least mitigated the extreme concentrations of wealth and power that we see today. They achieved this feat in large part by riding a tidal wave of cultural backlash, harnessing the powerful emergence of organized social conservatives. This hegemonic alliance of plutocrats and predominantly white social conservatives, in a few decades time, stripped away many important checks on the power of capital. This transpired in conjunction with a dramatic fracturing of the broad American Left and a corresponding decline in the power and influence of organized labor, especially within the Democratic Party. We are now witnesses to—and many of us victims of—a financial system convulsing under the weight of its own unchecked greed. More to the point, the democratic structures we have struggled to build together over generations, imperfect as they were, have now corroded to the point where most Americans feel we have little or no voice in the big decisions that shape our lives.
Today we face mounting social and economic problems, and a formidable ecological crisis to boot. How do we begin to approach the daunting predicaments that are before us? It is my observation that many academics and analysts who approach facets of these problems, work with an unstated assumption that solutions will come from more accurate understandings of the problems. Global warming, for example, is treated as more a problem of information, facts and beliefs, than of power and economics. It is of course critical to have scientists and scholars who study and understand the details of complex problems like global warming. However, this expertise is all for naught if we are unable to comprehend that our constraints are primarily political (i.e. the problem is one of power and will). Truth, unfortunately, is not its own arbiter. Right does not equal might. Sure, it is important to continue refining our scientific understanding of global warming, but the pressing task at hand is to build a new alignment of power that can counter the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industries.
This is the central question of my inquiry: How can we build more collective agency and power? How can we build stronger collective thinking and action to solve the pressing social, economic, political, and ecological challenges of our time? What are the major constraints (structural, cultural, psychological, etc.) impeding collective action? Can we overcome or mitigate these constraints? How?