Overcoming social fragmentation
With this post I return to the idea of a movement of movements, which I began to explore back in November. Here I outline some basic concepts for how such a movement might be shaped.
Fragmentation is a particular curse of the modern world. We live in a bewildering array of systems and networks, of groupings and cultures. In market society we are continually being sold one thing or another. The grabs for our attention and focus are seemingly infinite. There is not much to bring us together as people, especially around concepts about how we might create a better society.
There seems to be some design in this. The very idea we might create a better society stands in challenge to business as usual. Since the 1980s, we have lived with the neoliberal ideas that the market rules, there is no alternative, and, as neoliberal icon and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.
Of course, there are many people and groups working on aspects of what would make a better society. Nonprofit advocacy organizations, progressive businesses that have moved beyond purely bottom line considerations, labor unions, caring individuals and others all advance pieces of the puzzle. But we have nothing to assemble the whole picture, or to accumulate the collective power that comes from unity around a shared vision. We have no institutional framework to create and carry forward a sense of the common good.
That is the place of a movement of movements, to move beyond single-issue politics, to pull together the various aspirations for a better society into an understandable, coherent whole, and to unify our forces to make our aspirations reality. Here I offer a few initial thoughts on how to make this happen, based on many years of progressive activist experience, including some work in coalition building.
The power of a common vision
Building broader alignments takes time and resources. In fields working for change, those are generally limited. So for people to devote time to the project, they must see it as providing additional value to the causes on which they are focused. They must see how a broader alignment can indeed provide victories.
There is an additional hurdle, and it is perhaps the greatest. Anyone who has participated long in activist politics knows what a turf battle is. They can be vicious. Leaders of advocacy groups wish to protect their place in their issue arena, and often regard new entrants with suspicion. They can also be worried that focus on their issue will be diffused in a larger format.
For these reasons, the seeds of a movement of movements must be planted by people who see value in a broader alignment, and can look beyond their own institutional boundaries and single issues to build a larger vision of the common good.
The most compelling reason to participate in building such a movement is the power of such a vision – In creating a framework through which we can ask ourselves what we want this place to look like 10, 20 and 50 years in the future, and a consensus and plan of action to realize that shared vision. That is why I think a movement of movements needs to be built from the ground up, with local alignments forming the cellular units of larger confederations created at state/provincial, bioregional and national levels.
It is far more feasible to build a vision for the future in place, because place is what we can comprehend. It shapes our immediate experience, including our sense of where things are going wrong. The homeless camp under the bridge, the traffic jam and smoggy air, the police shooting, the wage and wealth gap. We cannot solve all these problems on our own in the places we live. But we can begin to make a dent, and assemble consensus for action at larger levels. There is a particular power in coming together as people, saying this is our vision for our place and we are coming together to make it happen.
That points to an additional approach that I think is crucial. Many of us imagine a transformed society that looks starkly different that the one we have today, with a different basis of economics and infrastructure. But the place to start toward any change is distinguishing what is not working today. Often, that is because we lack the institutional frameworks that would meet needs. So much of what a movement of movements must do is identifying new institutions that must be created. For example:
- Public social housing agencies to provide the affordable housing the private market does not.
- Public banks to fund social and energy transition that for-profit banks will not.
- Single-payer health insurance provided at state and regional levels, potentially preparing for a national system.
- Community food systems that eliminate food waste and insecurity at the same time.
The public assembly
A key institutional element in the movement of movements itself is participatory democracy exercised through a public assembly. It can be called a community congress or community assembly. Extinction Rebellion uses the term people’s assembly. Ecological philosopher Murray Bookchin did extensive writing on the importance of such assemblies in building authority and legitimacy for democratic will. An assembly is the new public square, the new town meeting. There is a rich literature from Bookchin and others on community assemblies into which I will dig in future posts.
An assembly is the venue for agreeing on a common vision. But for an assembly to produce more than a wish list, it must also agree on a structure and plan to carry it forward. As I wrote in my previous piece, the failure to create such structures left prior broad-spanning initiatives such as the World Social Forum as primarily talk-fests. But here is where it gets tricky. Structure implies a level of authority and accountability, as well as shared resources. There must be some level of agreement among the participants to be accountable, and to carry out needed tasks.
Single-issue orientation must pass, but there still must be the capacity to focus on specific areas. That is why an assembly and follow-on infrastructure must create clusters that provide that focus, such as housing, transportation, climate, health care, criminal justice, etc. Groups currently active in those areas can provide leadership roles, allaying some of the concern about turf. Importantly, and adding a value beyond single-issue groupings, connective tissue can be created where issues crosshatch. For example, it is impossible to consider transportation and housing separately. These are intimately connected areas.
Overall, groups participating in the movement of movements, while still primarily focused in their issue area, would commit to educating their members and constituencies on the whole vision, and how their specific issue fits in. When there is a need for public comment or mobilization, all participants agree to reach out and help where they can.
There are reasons of practicality why we have not seen a movement of movements come about as an enduring mass reality, some cited above. It takes a lot of work and some breaking down of institutional boundaries. One must add, knowing the history of intelligence agency dirty tricks such as the FBI’s Cointelpro, a movement that threatens to be effective will be subject to disruption. There are many obstacles.
But we must overcome those obstacles. We have an overwhelming need to return to a sense of the common good, and build unity of purpose and action around creating it. For that we need to build the institutional structures through which we can come together to do this. That place is missing today. A movement of movements is what we need to fill that gap. These are only initial thoughts, which I hope will spur a dialogue on this crucial topic.
Teaser photo credit: Extinction Rebellion Solidarity with the French Citizens Assembly on Climate. By Matt Hrkac from Geelong / Melbourne, Australia – Extinction Rebellion: Solidarity with the French Citizens Assembly on Climate, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106974432