The push toward corporate profits over people’s needs is already happening, but it doesn’t have to go that way if movements start planning big.
By Cam Fenton
All around the globe, governments are starting to move forward with reopening plans that lift some degree of COVID-19 social distancing. With that comes talk of recovery and rebuilding. While some of the attention is on green stimulus and a range of progressive demands for just and equitable recoveries, the only way we can win any such advances is through movements that are prepared to take on the fight.
Before the COVID-19 crisis began, the world was — by and large — governed by a neoliberal common sense with its roots in Reagan- and Thatcher-era politics. The same leaders who upheld that order are still in power and, with a few notable exceptions, most of them are seeing increases in their approval numbers through this crisis.
In Europe, Germany’s Angela Merkel has a soaring approval rating of 78 percent, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte is at 71 percent and France’s Emmanuel Macron is up 14 points. In Australia, Scott Morrison brought his approval numbers from negative to positive 26. Where I live in Canada, Justin Trudeau has a 74 percent approval, and even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has seen a significant increase. While many of these leaders, and others seeing less of an approval bump, have been forced to fund public health and support people through this crisis, it hasn’t changed their political DNA. As the crisis lifts, we can expect them to try to make a hard turn back to business as usual, putting corporate profits ahead of public needs.
The last time the world went through a crisis even close to the scale of this one — the 2008 financial crisis — it was followed by a wave of viral protests against inequality.
The push towards this is already underway, with a mix of corporate lobbying, astroturf protests and media punditry leading the charge. It’s not hard to imagine that in a few weeks or months, we’ll see governments passing massive austerity budgets, suddenly worried about the debt load from pandemic spending. Nor is it hard to imagine massive corporate tax cuts and the diversion of public finance and subsidies to the kind of “shovel-ready” fossil fuel and other extraction projects that these leaders have prioritized for years. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Neoliberal ideas that argue for small government, trusting corporations and letting the market sort out social problems have been considered common sense politics since the 1980s. Together, these ideas make up what both the Sunrise Movement and “Hegemony How-To” author Jonathan Smucker refer to as our “dominant political alignment,” guiding who and what our governments prioritize. And, thanks to this crisis, this alignment has never been weaker. The pandemic has shone bright lights on so many of its failings, demonstrating how easy it could be for our governments to simply choose to put peoples’ needs first. Social movements now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the dominant alignment.
So how do we do it?
We need to start planning big
A few weeks ago, that bastion of radical left thought, Bloomberg News, published an article titled “This Pandemic Will Lead to Social Revolutions.” The article’s thesis is correct in saying that “the coronavirus has put a magnifying glass on inequality both between and within countries” and that if this isn’t addressed “these pressures will erupt.” While the article’s author sees this as an argument for a pragmatic centrist response that can calm eruptions and protect business as usual, the impetus for organizers is to build, ignite and steer them to fuel a transformation.
Doing this requires three basic steps. The first is to build a broad base that opposes a return to an unjust, unsustainable model of “business as usual.”
With so many people impacted by this crisis, or by the gaps in our system it has exacerbated, there are millions of people who could make up this base. That’s a lot of potential passive support. The job of organizers and activists is to activate that support. The challenge, made greater by this pandemic, will be figuring out how to reach them when traditional face-to-face organizing methods are off the table.
Once this base starts to grow and get hungry for action, the next big task will be orchestrating what Mark and Paul Engler, authors of “This is an Uprising,” call “trigger moments.” These are moments of public action meant to unleash a wave of support and spark exponential movement activity. The most effective trigger moments dramatize the broader social conflict we’re trying to lift up, and do it in such a compelling way that massive numbers of the previously passive or inactive public feel either compelled to join actions, or at least move into publicly supporting the cause.
In some ways, COVID-19 is a trigger moment in itself, in that it has activated a massive outpouring of public action in response to the crisis. Looking forward, organizers will need to consciously create follow-up trigger moments that politicize the activated masses, active passive support and build tension in the system towards the third step: something the Englers call “the moment of the whirlwind.”
The last time the world went through a crisis even close to the scale of this one — the 2008 financial crisis — it was followed by a wave of viral protests against inequality. Perhaps the most famous, the Occupy movement, grew from a small camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park to a global movement almost overnight. This was a moment of the whirlwind. A series of successful trigger events — in the form of smart, strategic nonviolent actions that married disruption and sacrifice to garner global attention — sparked widespread support and interest. The movement grew massively and rapidly, with its viral top-bottom polarization of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent sweeping the globe. By stacking up trigger moments, Occupy created an irresistible public conflict that transformed the way we understand and talk about economic inequality.
This moment obviously can’t crib exactly from the Occupy playbook, as public camp-outs aren’t the easiest tactic when you’re in a pandemic. Also, Occupy’s tactical focus creates its own suite of challenges. Nevertheless, the roadmap is still instructive: Connect with people impacted and activated by this crisis, organize those people toward trigger moments and stack those trigger moments up with a plan to set off whirlwinds.
We need demands, symbolic ones
One of the biggest potential pitfalls that organizers face in a moment like this is what exactly to demand. The simple truth is that, more often than not, oppositional movements come together quicker and with more vigor than propositional ones. As a climate organizer, that’s been clearest to me juxtaposing any anti-pipeline campaign with even the most well-organized carbon policy fight. The former has clearer villains, a more imminent threat and better outlets for organizing people than the latter ever could.
The job for organizers then is to build a bridge from this crisis to the Green New Deal future.
That’s why, when thinking about this moment, our first step is to organize people around the threat of governments bringing us out of this crisis with cuts and corporate handouts. With this, we have clear villains, high stakes and a direct connection to people. Our demands need to make a clear, moral call that we will not return to business as usual.
This call would have the added benefit of linking directly to clear tactics. Imagine student climate strike organizers committing to not return to class without bold action towards a just transition, or workers refusing to return to their jobs without increased benefits and health care. Where transit has been made free during the pandemic, a step back could be met with a fare strike. Rent strike movements that have coalesced in this moment could continue and grow to demand affordable housing. And on it could go.
In the climate movement, where I spend most of my time, it’s not hard to imagine climate justice activists literally getting in the way of a return to business as usual by disrupting the construction, approval or financing of fossil fuels. What’s more, a call for not going back could also borrow one of Occupy’s strengths — making the call to action the same as the primary tactic.
It’s important to note, however, that while this opposition will start our organizing engine, it won’t be enough to keep it going. The natural question, both from supporters and those looking to derail us, will be: “If we’re not going back, where are we going?”
That’s where we’ll need our own vision of a solution to this crisis. Thankfully, a lot of the groundwork for this has already happened.
The various Green New Deals around the globe, sets of policies and plans meant to tackle converging crises of climate change and inequality by transforming our economies, are more relevant than ever before. They’re built on the kinds of ideas that societies will need to come out of this pandemic: public health for all, creating millions of good green jobs, prioritizing vulnerable communities, and tackling the climate crisis, to name a few. They’re also really popular and — where polling has been done on them — they’re even more popular when you tie them to making corporations and the wealthy pay their costs.
The job for organizers then is to build a bridge from this crisis to the Green New Deal future. That bridge will be mortared with symbolic popular demands, big ideas meant to rally the largest “we” behind them and isolate a small opposition that opposes them. When well-crafted, they excite and activate our base, move the political middle to our side and force our opposition into narrow, unpopular positions.
It’s cliche to talk about how unprecedented this moment is, but the simple truth is that what happens in the weeks, months and years to come will likely shape the next chapter of our story.
These are different from instrumental demands, which focus on very specific policy ideas. While valuable and critical, these demands are often hard for the broad public to understand, and can be too narrow to build the kind of mass base of public support we need right now. What’s more, building power behind symbolic demands moves the political window, creating the conditions for instrumental wins along the way. That’s not to say policy work won’t be critical right now, it just won’t be the foundation of an effective mass movement.
There’s also good news on this front. In many corners of the globe, efforts pushing for a people’s bailout and justice at the center of recovery plans, have included strong, principle-driven platforms. The job of organizers is to translate these into language that works for the people they’re bringing together and turn them into clear, symbolic demand sets that they can build a mass movement behind.
We need to get political
It’s helpful to sort this work into three phases: responding, recovering and rebuilding. In Canada, we’ve been in the first phase since the pandemic really landed, with a focus on supporting mutual aid organizing and other efforts making sure people have what they need to weather the storm. As I write this, things are lurching towards recovery, which is a lot of the work already outlined in this piece. If we, as organizers, can build and deploy mass movement pressure, we’ll enter the rebuilding phase where the conflict between returning to a neoliberal order or ushering in a transformative Green New Deal will become starkest.
There are no shortcuts or easy answers right now, but we do have the tools.
Eventually, that conflict will bleed over into our politics. Obviously, this is going to have to look different all over the world, where local politics will determine some of the terms of engagement. But, in democracies, it’s probably going to mean elections that both serve as a litmus test — of how this conflict is shaping politics — and offer an opportunity for our political alignment to govern.
That means we can’t just make a plan to contest with power. We also need a plan to take it. The important thing is to start thinking about that now because not only are elections coming up soon in a lot of places, but also because we know that mass movements activate some of our strongest political champions. Remember that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cites Standing Rock as the start of her journey to Congress. Organizers need to have plans to build powerful protest movements that can also support movement politicians and put our people into power.
It’s cliche to talk about how unprecedented this moment is, but the simple truth is that what happens in the weeks, months and years to come will likely shape the next chapter of our story. The decisions made as we recover and rebuild from this crisis will either help or hurt people. They will either put us on track to tackle the climate crisis or derail it. They will either strengthen our established order or remake it. There are no shortcuts or easy answers right now, but we do have the tools. It’s just a matter of getting to work.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Cam Fenton has worked on climate justice campaigns all across Canada. He is the former Director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and currently works for 350.org. He is based in Vancouver, BC. @CamFenton.
This article was published on May 12 at WagingNonviolence.