At a lunch seminar at the Next System Project last week, David Bollier reviewed some of the work he has done on the various expressions and formations of “the commons.” It’s a fascinating area of inquiry that offers a helpful way to think about how a more just and humane economic and social system can counter the hegemony of the market in capitalist societies. This post talks about Bollier’s presentation and also draws from his paper Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm, published by the Next System Project in 2016.
We hear a lot about “southern heritage” these days, especially with regard to the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and notables that appear in cities and towns all over the country. Given that the vast majority of such monuments were erected several decades after the Civil War at the height of Jim Crow in the South, but also in the heyday of anti-black ordinances in the North, it is clear that this monument-building had aims other than the expression of southern culture. So here’s my question: why are these statues and the Confederacy they represent so important to southern heritage? Given several hundred years of history, why put so much emphasis on the four years of the Confederacy? Why does the removal of Robert E. Lee and other generals from our public squares present such a threat? Do southerners have nothing else to fall back on? Hardly.
For those who like statues and monuments, don’t we still have southerners like George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson? Let’s take it a bit further. What about the great inventors and craftsmen of the South? Do we not have Nashville and country music; New Orleans and jazz–foundations of southern culture beloved by millions around the globe? Lots to be proud of there. What about the unique sub-regional cultures in Appalachia and the Creole regions of Louisiana (and many other places)? How about food? My god, what would America be without southern cuisine of all types? What about the writers and poets, the musicians and novelists and storytellers; the farmers and those who toiled in the fields and factories. Lots to celebrate there and, as far as I can tell, no one wants to suppress any of it. Quite the contrary.
With the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance of a radical republican party, it is a commonplace to assert that the United States is passing through a moment of great uncertainty and great peril. At the same time, there has been a flowering of progressive movements–going back several years in many cases–and political activism. But for many progressives it is not clear how activism translates into political change.
If you are wondering how the power of protest works, Francis Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America offers some answers. Despite the fact that this book was written in 2006–a lifetime ago given the current pace of dizzying events–Piven’s conceptual approach and historical analysis lend many helpful insights about how protest movements can affect political coalitions and electoral politics.
We live in perilous and confusing times. On the one hand, the US government is dominated by a reactionary two-headed regime that is attempting to throw over 20 million citizens off of health insurance, while giving a huge tax break to the wealthiest 1 percent. On the other hand, the idea of universal healthcare appears to be catching on fast in progressive circles and possibly across the political spectrum in the United States. The Kaiser Family Foundation has noticed a shift in attitudes and even conservative commentators George Will and Charles Krauthammer have recently predicted that the US will eventually have a single payer system. Whatever the outcome of the current effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, universal health care will be on the agenda.
But, as we have seen countless times in the past several years, nothing is inevitable and everything is contested. There are extremely powerful forces that find universal healthcare abhorrent. In a “normal’ political system, a bill that had an approval rating of under 20% would have no chance of making it through Congress, but given the power of the insurance industries, the outsized influence of billionaires like the Koch brothers, and the right-wing media and blogosphere cheerleading for cruelty, this awful bill had a good chance of becoming law. The clear implication is that while universal healthcare is catching on as an idea among newly energized progressive groups, there is a very difficult and expensive fight ahead to make it a reality. If progressives are not prepared, they may lose the best chance in decades to pass a law that guarantees health care to all Americans.
To date, I have not said much about what progressives should be striving for as opposed to what they may be against. But without articulating a direction, any kind of political strategy is attempting to fly with one wing. As this site develops, I’ll be engaging with many progressive ideas about how to make America a more democratic country–economically and politically–that can work for everyone.
One intriguing vision is provided by the work of the Democracy Collaborative and its Next System Project. Two weeks ago, I attended a book signing at Busboys and Poets in DC for Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealthby Gar Alperovitz, political economist, historian, co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative and co-chair of the Next System Project. Alperovitz studies democratic forms of economic organization as an alternative to the current system of corporate capitalism based on extraction, profit maximization, a skewed distribution of wealth, and the impoverishment–financial and spiritual–of a large majority of Americans, along with other negative results such as climate change and pollution.