The Myth of Broad-based Movements
by Lorna Salzman
The April 9th spring chorus in Union Square was not melodious songbirds but a bunch of squawking crows jostling for attention and hoping to devour the entrails of Israel and the real issues be damned. What could be the point of this rally and all those that preceded it and those that will follow? “Anti-war” is the cry of the resistance but this hides a multitude of disparate causes and identity groups, each with a tiny constituency and little political currency.
Presumably all the disadvantaged and wretched of the American earth – minorities, immigrants, jobless, women, the poor, workers – will come together in a Millennium Development Goal in which all of them will be winners in an as-yet uncharacterized game with no rules and no goals. How you play the game is their motto. Those who still grip these fantasies have little to contribute to real-world problems beyond a shared resentment of just about everything American and Israeli, and even there the object of their resentment is rarely clear nor are the objectives necessarily congruent. There is just the usual laundry list compiled to please each identity group, comprised mostly of mismatched socks.
As just one example: there is a backlash against higher energy prices by the poor and their advocates, whereas the knowledgeable environmentalists know full well that they should and must go up, as part of a sane energy policy that must include stringent efficiency standards, full cost pricing for energy and goods and an end to federal subsidies and tax breaks for all sectors of the economy, not just fossil fuels.
Unions and workers, like corporations, don’t want higher energy prices because they raise the cost of goods and reduce consumer spending, thus impacting on economic growth, the basis for consumer society and capitalism. The issue of growth is the single largest stumbling block to developing a “broad based” movement for change, but it is stubbornly resisted by nearly everyone, especially those promoting “green” economies and technologies. These now include the leading climate change group350.org/1Sky, which has effectively abandoned citizen action so as to curry favor with big business for whom the “no-growth” paradigm is anathema.
Thus, the chance that social justice activists will find agreement with environmentalists is remote, and this does not even consider the side-lining of environmental emergencies by smaller side issues like Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the long history of failed coalitions, hope springs eternal even as rigorous thinking is dismissed as the province of “elites”. Environmentalism gets the short end of the stick as always, as their representative is allotted his three minutes at the podium to shout “No nukes”.
There is no such thing as “natural allies”, there never was, and there never will be. The movement and the future will be defined only by the movement that grasps ecological reality, sticks to a firm set of principles, articulates how these subsume all the other social and economic issues, rejects corporate cant, eschews false solutions and dilatory actions, and designs a substitute economy that starts with relocalization and other ecological precepts and rebuilds society on top of these. In brief, the only movement capable of doing this is anenvironmental movement modelled on the one that was born in the 1970s.
A recapitulation of its accomplishments is long overdue, not least because the only thing most people see today are the privileged establishment groups in Washington who long ago abandoned their grassroots constituents in favor of status and access to decision-makers and congress. These groups regard their work as a profession, not a cause, and are the mirror image of corporations. Where was there a group that was able to stop the Wall St. and bank bail-outs or force withdrawal from Iraq orAfghanistan or achieve decent universal health care or loosen the corporate grip on congress? Where was there a group or movement to stop Congress and Obama from decimating urgent social, health, education and transportation initiatives? And will there be one ready to eject Obama and his congressional lackies in 2012?
The peace movement has never prevented wars. Unions and workers have lost out to corporations. Liberals have rejected the kind of radical reform needed as witness their antagonism to Ralph Nader . And the Democratic Party retains its death grip on liberals only because of its more progressive stance on things like racial discriminationm abortion and women’s and gay rights.
But the environmental movement has strong accomplishments to its credit, in legislation, regulatory reform, habitat protection, worker safety, public health. It led to the creation of local and state environmental agencies, local laws and enforcement of federal standards. It busted a gut in organizing, educating,, lobbying, pressuring, demonstrating, resisting, against huge odds. And for the most part it succeeded and left us their legacy. For the short period of the 1970s decade it accomplished monumental things, while enduring attacks from the left and social justice activists who even today cannot see that environmentalism is a social justice movement par excellence and that it poses the greatest threat to capitalism extant —a realization that corporations and government came to long ago. And it did this without a leftist in its ranks, except for the anti-nuclear activists.
No other movement except civil rights has come close to this record of achievement, yet today the left and the greens are abandoning it, claiming that the deck is stacked against it (it always was). It is thus indefensible that climate activists like 350.org declare the game lost and are moving to an undefined arena with no declared allies, no goals, and no chance of success. They do not understand that a movement is not built by preaching only to the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged. While the “permanent government” may still call the shots, it still needs the legitimization from important sectors of society, not just business. It needs the media, the political pundits, the intellectual elites, the academics, economists, attorneys, etc.
The corollary is that if there is an influential (not necessarily large) dissenting group, a hole can be punched in the best laid plans. The anti-nuclear power movement is an example and a near-example was the opposition to cap and trade (aided though by Republicans for their own reasons). The anti-coal groups in Appalachia may with luck and perseverance step to the front of a new movement. As for the left, it looks for excuses for its irrelevance and ineptness at educating and organizing the general public (which it looks at with scorn anyway); it is now inventing rationalizations for abandoning the political process on the most urgent issue humanity has ever faced, and for abandoning all pretenses at citizenship. In this sense it plays into the hands of its adversaries by building a Tower of Babel that lacks form and ideological cement. Michael Berube is not far off the mark in postulating that the left actually welcomes defeat. So far they haven’t proven him wrong.
The Myth of Broad-based Movements by Lorna Salzman
April 13, 2011