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Bring Back Pell Grants for Prisoners

When I was in working on my PhD in philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I paid for part of my education by teaching in prison. For me it was an incredibly rewarding experience. It was great working these students who had time to read and think, and wonder in the deep ways that philosophy encourages.
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The Fortress World of Capitalism vs. the Beautiful Possibilities of Cooperation

Our beloved world is entering an increasingly unstable period, full of dangers and also full of possibilities. In many countries, old political parties are crumbling faster and anyone thought imaginable. Old geopolitical alliances have come unglued as the US comes to exercise its role as world hegemon in new and unpredictable ways. The development of the internet, of mobile phones and of apps has led to incredible disruption of many aspects of many societies: from how we pay for and listen to music, to how we consume and propagate information and news, to how we shop for almost anything. All that is solid is melting into air.

At this crossroads it is possible that the global community will move in the direction that the dominant social forces seem to be pushing us towards. That possibility has been called “fortress world.” It is a world where we continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy the atmosphere; where climate refugees desperate to leave Africa are forced by military means to stay in a continent with a decreasing ability to produce food; where finance capital fashions a “market” that continue to squeeze working class people to into extreme poverty; where xenophobia rises in the wealthier countries and keeps masses of people voting for politicians who serve the masters of an extractive and unequal economy. That fortress world is a real possibility and the election of Donald Trump is certainly a sign that this worse future may be on the way.

But it is also possible to build a future where fossil fuels are phased out very quickly, where the political forces that oppose the domination of finance capital come to win elections, and where we work hard to create an economy where no one needs to work very hard.

The technical solutions to the climate crisis are already well at hand. Renewable energy is now economically competitive with fossil fuels, and alternatives to dirty technologies have emerged in virtually every sector of production. The problem of poverty and wealth is also an easy one to solve on a technical level. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, and our technology has developed to the point where we can meet our needs with very little work.

To give one simple illustration of how within reach a better life for all is: take the total personal income in the United States. Divide it by the number of people, and multiply by four. It turns out that the average family of four could have $220,000 per year to live on if we had income equality.  Imagine raising minimum wages, taxing the wealthy, and providing a guaranteed minimum income as ways of distributing that income. Imagine reducing work hours so that, as productivity when up, work time could go down, and work could be shared among those who needed an income. One of the main arguments against this approach is that without the profit incentive our technology would not develop. Imagine worker owner cooperatives developing better ways of doing things and sharing the wealth that comes from those developments with the people who work on them.

A new wave of automation is about to hit the world’s economies so hard that millions of service jobs will be lost in the coming period. People are starting to talk about the need for a guaranteed minimum income to deal with that displacement. If that wave hits the US with the current political consensus in place, it will mean another giant step toward the fortress world, as some people profit enormously while others have no access of the means to survive.

Karl Marx believed that as it became easy to meet our needs through the high level of productivity of the machines we used, the time would be right to get rid of capitalism and move to an economy based on the principle of “from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their needs.” It seems clear that we have reached that point. And is it just as clear that those who profit from the current system will not willingly fall by the wayside and let the rest of us live in peace and reap the rewards of our prosperity, even though that prosperity was made possible by the collective wisdom and hard work of the human species.

Are we now on the edge of a world where people are able to meet their needs without the exploitation of labor that leads to the enrichment of a few? There is much talk in the present period of an emerging “sharing economy” where people share what they have with each other, and need to buy less, and hopefully therefore work less, and use fewer natural resources. That idea holds much promise, but it has been hijacked by the titans of the Silicon Valley, whose bold new ideas all fit within the tired old paradigm of profit maximization.

The people at the top of our new tech economy, who are often seen as brilliant and creative, who love the concept of disruption, often operate as if they had the puniest imaginations possible. We are used to thinking of people like Steve jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sergei Brin, Larry  Page, Travis Kalanick, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg as enormously creative. And yet theirs is the creativity of the puzzle master. Put them in front of a video game and they figure out how to win it. Give them an engineering problem and they use their technical brilliance to come up with new ideas.

And yet when it comes to the social side of their visions, there is only one game they play, and one path to winning, and that is the game called “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” It is as if they studied engineering in college but never took a social sciences or humanities class. If you study philosophy, you learn to question underlying assumptions, to see the implications of points of view, to question the walls of the paradigms in which we think. The titans of the Silicon Valley do indeed question and wonder and create and overturn, but none of them has done anything remotely interesting having to do with the capitalist context in which their work takes place.

The period most analogous to our own is the 1920s when inequality was so severe it almost led to a revolution in the US. At that time the economy was dominated by a few robber barons. People like Carnegie and Rockefeller became fabulously wealthy off the backs of working people, drove out competition through monopolistic practices, and tried to buy the public’s good favor by engaging in high profile philanthropy.

Google’s primary purpose has become to sell ads. The same is true of Facebook. Amazon is one of the worst employers of labor in the industrialized world. Uber has made its money by avoiding regulation and stripping workers of protections that took over a hundred years for the working class to build. Imagine if anyone of them had anything as their ultimate goal besides amassing wealth?

I remember a time in the 1990s when discussions were raging about the future of the internet. At that time I saw an ad that said “become a tollbooth on the information superhighway.” That was my first glimpse of the dystopian reality to come. Before that, the internet was a space of creativity and of very little money making. Critics of the growing commercialization of the internet reminded us that in its early days, radio had had an amazingly utopian element to it, where there were a multitude of small radio stations which were widely different, and quirky, and full of character. Then, over time the airwaves become dominated by a few large corporations which homogenized the content to squeeze maximum profit from it. The same thing happened with television, which in its early days was full of creativity and variety. In the 1990’s there was talk about how the emerging technologies could either lead to a better world for all, or could become just another vector for increasingly monopolized capital.

In the early days of the internet there was a strong community of techno utopians who were developing tools that they thought would serve human society. The developers of Linux created an operating system whose code was open so anyone could modify it and expand it, but no one could own it. That system still underlies much of the internet. Firefox was formed as a non-profit and its services are some of the best in use. The non-profit search engine Duck Duck Go doesn’t track you and so doesn’t accumulate information for advertisers to use to target you more efficiently, or for the government to track what you are interested in. Creative Commons has come up with licensing systems to allow people to share information and technology without anyone being able to privatize those things that creators have deemed shareable but not saleable.

There is a lot of talk these days about the sharing economy. In anti-capitalist circles there is increasing talk of the development of a solidarity economy, based on meeting human needs within ecological limits through detaching from consumer culture, developing worker owned cooperatives, supporting patient capital that invests for social benefits, and sharing what we have so we don’t all need to buy as much. Until recently, the idea of a sharing economy was an important part of any vision of a solidarity economy. It was a utopian vision of a world where people would find ways to share what they had without anyone profiting and with no one’s labor being exploited. The hope was that we would all rely less on money, on wage labor, or on capitalists.

For the titans of the Silicon Valley, and increasingly in mainstream culture, the sharing economy has meant almost the opposite. It means the monetization of ever more aspects of our lives. My home becomes a possible source of profit for Air B and B.  My need for a bit of labor, because I can’t lift heavy objects, and someone else’s ability to pick those things up who has a bit of time, becomes a source of profit for Task Rabbit. My car and time and your need for a ride become a source of profit for Uber. In all of these cases, we are “sharing,” our homes, our time, and our cars. But the nice relations between the owner of the room that is Air BandB’d and the traveler who gets to stay in a nice homey place, is mediated by a company whose only interest in the interaction is profit making. That company hires armies of lawyers to fight any community initiatives to protect society from the negative consequences of this “sharing” relationship.

Imagine a real sharing economy, where something like Uber is set up to facilitate the matching of drivers and riders where the drivers got the profits. Imagine something like Air B and B, where a platform was developed that took into account the needs of communities to not have housing taken out of the rental market and put into commercial use, but instead limited its use to people sharing their homes when they didn’t need them. What if platforms developed that respected labor and environmental laws, because its developers saw themselves as providing a service rather than as trying to win the game of the one who dies with the most toys wins?

In his pamphlet “Platform Cooperatives: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy,” Trebor Scholz shares the outlines of what it would take to develop technological platforms that served human needs without involving exploitation. He also shares inspiring examples of real experiments in platform coopertativism. Worker owner cooperatives can be formed with tech workers who develop and maintain the platforms as coop members, along with the others, such as the drivers and laborers.

The creativity that has been put into the game of being the one who dies with the most toys, needs instead to be put into finding ways to keep capitalist forms of exploitation from destroying the new world we want to build. The titans of Silicon Valley need to be seen as leaders of the dash toward fortress world rather than as purveyors of anything that is new in any important way.

The future that is livable belongs to the coder who can code our new platform cooperatives. It belongs to those willing to fight to take down the pirates of finance capital. It belongs to those who are willing to fight for systems of democracy that hold power to account and limits the abilities of politicians to gain power based on fanning the flames of fear in a world whose instability does engender fear.

It seems that the term sharing economy has been so corrupted by its association with exploitative for profit platforms that it probably needs to be abandoned. Those arguing for the emergence of non-capitalist alternatives have gravitated to the term solidarity economy to describe the non-capitalist economic initiatives that are emerging, and it seems that platform cooperativism is a good term for those technologically mediated forms of solidarity economy that serve human needs and help build a sustainable future.

Building a sustainable world in these very quickly changing times requires that we understand clearly what we are up against. It also requires that we work hard to develop alternative visions of that better would and are cognizant of the small steps needed to get there. Building platform cooperativism seems like an urgent part of that process.

Commondreams July 7, 2017

Don’t Mourn, Organize…and Vote



Presidential elections are important. They are really important. If George Bush hadn’t been president, the US would not have bombed Iraq, ISIS would not exist. And yet around presidential election time, people get wrapped up in the elections in ways that are not helpful for building a just and sustainable society.

There is a lot we can do to impact the political world we live in. But during election time it is easy to get confused about what kinds of actions have what kinds of impacts. We can make a difference when we organize in ways that change the balance of power. We can make a difference when we support a good candidate who runs and who has a chance of winning. We can make a difference when we encourage candidates whose statements shift the terms of a public conversation. We can make a difference when we work over the period of many years to overturn Citizens United.  We can make a difference when we organize alternative strategies for capturing power through elections. And at the moment when we vote, we can make a difference, too, but only in very specific and limited ways.

Moralism and Elections

I hear a lot of what feels like moralism associated with this presidential election.  I hear people talking as if it would taint them as person to vote for someone they didn’t like, because they would be participating in a corrupt system. But of course we participate in corrupt systems every day. Every day when you use your credit card you participate. Every day when you drive your car participate. Every day when you buy food that was made using underpaid farm labor you do that. We are embedded in social processes that we didn’t invent, and many of them are destroying the planet and killing people. That is our reality. Rather that fantasizing that we can be pure by not participating in systems we object to, we need to be smart about when, where, and how we act to make what kind of difference.

The Democratic Party will not be reformed if it loses this election because progressives decide to not vote for Clinton. That party has shown an amazing ability to shoot itself in the foot by taking progressive votes for granted. It has been dominated for a very long time by forces sympathetic to big business and Wall Street. Without deep changes, right now it can only pander to us so much before betraying its owners. It also engages in petty forms of analysis to decide who its voters are. It allowed Al Gore’s election to be given to George Bush. Enough African-American voters were turned away in Florida to have tipped the election. But the Democratic Party was afraid of losing some of its white racist voters by being seen as doing too much for African-Americans. You will not change the Democratic Party by not voting for its candidate.

The Green Party contributes to this moralistic rather than strategic approach to elections. It jumps on the bandwagon of the hype and easy access to attention that surrounds presidential elections by running candidates that have no chance of winning. It has rarely done the slow hard work of contesting small winnable elections and generating credibility to build as a party. Its approach feeds a sense of purity among those who want to register their opposition to the corrupt two party system, but who have no realistic plans for how to change the situation.

A Strategic approach to Elections

Much more promising is the Working Families Party, mostly based in New York. They run candidates when they think they can win. They pressure the democrats to get concessions when they can. They were instrumental in getting Bill De Blasio elected as the mayor of New York City.

Bernie’s campaign didn’t make the mistake of engaging in moralistic politics. Bernie was clear that he was raising the issues and participating in the dialogue, and would serve if elected, and would step aside of he wasn’t. He didn’t offer people the option of a vote that felt pure but made our circumstances worse.

The Sanders campaign accomplished a tremendous amount by putting progressive issues into the spotlight that a presidential election offers, and giving legitimacy to those positons. Bernie’s push for a $15 minimum wage raised that demand to a level of support that had previously seemed impossible. But Bernie could not have made that demand without the prior work of thousands of activists, like people who work at McDonalds’ and the brave workers at New York’s Hot And Crusty Bakery, who despite their immigration status, in 2012, fought a pitched battle and won the right to unionize.

If Bernie had won, it would have been amazing. And it now looks like if Bernie had thrown down really hard in the beginning and if he had better organizations, he might have won, despite the extreme hostility from the Democratic Party, and the power of money in elections. That is an amazing statement about the possibilities of making significant change even from within our very broken electoral system.


Don’t Mourn Organize and Vote

There is something about the disappointment I am hearing from Bernie supporters that makes me very uncomfortable. Bernie was very clear that his candidacy was part of a much broader struggle to change our political system. Even if he had won he would have been able to make very little practical headway on law and policy with a Republican congress.

People’ sense that they need to not vote for Clinton because she is a right–winger is an overestimation of the kinds of a difference we can make in this election at this point. It would be amazing if by putting a mark on a piece of paper the world of Wall Street domination over our political system would end. But such a possibility is an extremely rare occurrence. Generally the way to get problems like the power of Wall Street to go way is through long hard organizing over a period of years. Sometimes, as with Occupy Wall Street, or with the Sanders campaign, that movement is helped along by actions that disrupt the dominant pro-business narratives.

But generally political change is slow, and it takes work. Most of what changes the equations is the on the ground organizing rather that what happens in the electoral sphere.   

So now please hold your nose, and if you are in a swing state vote for the hawkish candidate supported by Wall Street, so that a neo-fascist racist doesn’t become our president. That small act will in some cases make a difference. If enough progressives vote for Clinton, they could tip the election. If you aren’t in a swing sate, what you do doesn’t matter a whole lot. I think I am going to vote for Clinton even though I live in California, which she will surely win. I will do that because I want to repudiate the neo-fascist racism that Trump represents. It is a grain of sand on a pile of manure. That small act of mine is not nearly as important the organizing I am doing all year long.  

Then on November 9th hopefully everyone will go back to work on shifting the balance of power to ensure that President Clinton is not able to cut welfare, give away the shop to Wall Street, start another war etc. And hopefully some of us will work to transform the electoral system in ways that make better outcomes more likely in the future. 


Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. She is the author of the forthcoming  Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, 2nd Ed

Making beautiful things where everyone gains and no one profits

My friend Annette Aylward is trying to make a living as a crafts person. She makes beautiful handmade linen towels. She believes in craft. She loves to make these things. To make a living making handmade things woven out of linen she needs to charge a lot of money for them. And she is successful at that. But she’d rather be able to make a living making these towels and selling them to people with less money.


William Morris, the founder of the arts and crafts movement in England had the same problem. He made beautiful textiles using pre-industrial techniques. His work was very popular among the upper middle class. Morris was a socialist and lived at the same time as Charles Dickens, when industrial production was creating misery for workers, for the environment, and the quality of things that were made was going down. He lived his life in revolt against the shoddiness of everything being produced in the industrial economy and fought to build a socialist society, where everyone would have their needs met without anyone getting rich off of anyone else’s labor. 


William Morris

Morris argued that in older times everyone had beautiful things. Things were made with care and out of materials that had integrity. He wrote:

Just consider what England was in the Fourteenth century. …Those buildings… contained much art: pictures, metal-work, carvings, tapestry, and the like, altogether forming a prodigious mass of art, produced by a scanty population. Try to imagine that. Why if we were asked (supposing we had the capacity) to reproduce the whole of those buildings with their contents, we should have to reply, “The country is not rich enough; every capitalist in the country would be ruined before it could be done.” Is not that strange?[i]


In his own workshop, workers were paid decent wages, there was good light and fresh air, and everyone’s voices were heard in terms of how things should be done.  The production was capitalist, in the sense that Morris made a profit off of it: workers were not paid the full value of their labor. And yet, many logics, besides the logic of capitalist profit making went into how things were done there.

The point of the whole enterprise was to make things in ways that created beauty and happiness. The profits were a part of the enterprise, but they weren’t what drove the decisions about how things would be done. 



When production is driven by profit, then shoddiness and misery are likely to be what gets produced. When my daughter was little she had quite a bit of cheap jewelry. The Center for Environmental Health started exposing the fact that much of the jewelry sold to children in the US at that time had lead in it. We snuck her precious shiny things away from her. Responding to the attempts to get lead out of the jewelry sold to children, one corporate spokesperson said that it was important that we understood that it just wasn’t cost effective to sell jewelry without lead. When production is done for profit only, we end up with children’s jewelry that causes brain damage.


For a craftsperson, it is tough to make a living selling things on the market. They are competing with sweatshop labor, with economies of scale, with more efficient systems for producing things for less cost.


Getting Past Capitalism

In my book Getting past Capitalism: History Vision Hope, I argue that rather than waiting for a revolution to overthrow capitalism we can make our lives better by pushing back on the capitalist aspects of our society in a wide variety of ways. One important part of the struggle against capitalism is to find ways to lessen what I call the economic dependency trap of capitalism, whereby our freedom to live our lives in ways that are deeply satisfying is thwarted by the extent to which we a dependent upon the profit that capitalists make to get the jobs we need to survive.[ii]


When compared with industrial agriculture, organic agriculture has all sorts of benefits. It is healthier for the workers, the food usually tastes better, it is better for the long term health of the soil, it is much less fossil fuel intensive. Delicious food can be made in ways that don’t cause misery. It is generally more expensive, because it is more time intensive, and in a capitalist society time is money, and money and time become scarce.


But time is not inherently scarce. What if the working class had enough power to demand that the fruits of productivity gains went to workers? And what if they took those gains as time off? Productivity in the US increased 80% from 1970-2011.[iii] If workers were to have captured just part of that and turned it into time off, we could all be working 20 hour weeks.   Imagine how many beautiful things we would have time to make.


Markets don’t exist in isolation. Rather they are shaped by policies. If agribusiness had to pay the cost of the greenhouse gasses they emitted, and if it wasn’t subsidized, then sustainable agriculture would be cost effective. We don’t need to overthrow capitalism to make that happen. But we do need to push the systems we inhabit and prevent them from favoring the interests of those who would use markets for private gain at the expense of the rest of us.


If we don’t challenge capitalism we end up with a world in which useless shiny toxic objects are sold to children and beautiful things only exist in the homes of the rich.  


A World of Beautiful Things

We can challenge capitalism and shift the equation, such that more of the profits go to workers. We can push for government regulations that won’t allow toxic jewelry to be sold to children. We can push for higher minimum wages. We can push for national health care, so people aren’t dependent upon a job in wage labor to get health care. We can get government to subsidize the production of sustainable and beautiful things. We can get our governments to invest in training artisans to make beautiful things in sustainable ways. We can create systems where there is easy access to credit for those creating in small workshops. If we had guaranteed health care and a guaranteed minimum wage, then people engaged in craft production could make the things they enjoyed making and would not need to charge much for them. 


I have a job that leaves me with time to write things that I think are of value to others and that I enjoy writing, and for which no one pays me. My writing is non-capitalist production. More than half of what is produced in the US is non-capitalist production. [iv] People work for governments; they work in worker owned cooperatives; they trade with one another; they make things and give them away.


Those artisans who are making beautiful functional things now are swimming upstream against a powerful current. They are engaged in what is called prefigurative politics, where we live as if we already inhabited the utopia we desire. They fail if they are nothing more than a niche market for the rich. They succeed when they show us that another world is possible; that things can be created without creating misery or destroying the environment; that there are many motivations besides the profit motive; that our lives can be aesthetically rich and full of pleasure.


Annette gave me one of her beautiful linen tea towels. It hangs in my kitchen and I use it as part of my bread making process. She also taught me how to make bread using the recipe from the village in Germany where she grew up, where people still use a community oven to bake bread. The economics of that her towel, of my bread, and of that communal oven all work out just fine. No one profits but everyone gains. 

[i] E.P. Thompson. 2011 William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Oakland; PM Press, page 233. 

[ii] Cynthia Kaufman. 2012. Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope. New York: Lexington books.


[iv] J.K. Gibson-Graham. 2007. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, page 68. 

Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. She is the author of the forthcoming  Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, 2nd Ed


Making Rights Work

Making Rights Work: A Review of "The Human Rights Enterprise"

A few years ago, when California was going through a major budget crisis and money for education was being cut back dramatically, many students protesting the cuts claimed that education was a right. Conservatives shot back that education wasn't a right, it was a privilege.

If education is a right, then how did we get that right? And if I have a right to an education, who has a duty to give it to me? Early theorists of rights, such as John Locke, argued that rights came from God. They also saw rights almost entirely in negative terms, as in, I have the right to be left alone. As a theorist of capitalism, Locke saw rights to property and rights to autonomous decision making as the most fundamental rights.

It wasn't until the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) was passed at the end of World War II that the idea of positive rights became widely accepted. The drafters of UNDHR expanded the notion of rights dramatically, Enshrined in it are rights to things like water, education and health care.

In The Human Rights Enterprise, authors William T. Armaline, Davita S. Glasberg and Bandana Purkayastha claim that while rights discourse is incredibly effective as a way to challenge power, most of the literature on human rights focuses on the "(1) formal legal approaches to defining and realizing human rights…. (2) the various legal and philosophical traditions that provide the foundations … [for human rights]; and (3) the relationships between state policy and politics at the national and international levels …"

What is missing, they argue, is a look at the real on-the-ground ways that claims to human rights actually function to challenge power. As political sociologists, they show how rights work as a dynamic process with citizens of the world and social movements, playing roles at least as important as governments in realizing our rights.

Human Rights Enterprise

They define a "human rights enterprise" as:

The process through which human rights are defined and realized, including, but not limited to the legal instruments and regimes often authorized by international elites. The human rights enterprise includes both legal, statist approaches to defining and achieving rights through agreements among duty-bearing states, and social movement approaches that manifest as social struggles over power, resources, and political voice. The human rights enterprise offers a ways to conceptualize human rights as a terrain of social struggle, rather than a static, contingent legal construct.

They trace the real political choices that those challenging racism in the US in the 1950s faced when deciding how to frame their claims against the government. Should they ask for human rights or civil rights? Based on the UNDHR, human rights include both positive and negative rights, and that would have been a nice vehicle for carrying the claims that those in the movement had for challenging both economic as well as political disenfranchisement that were core parts of US racism.

The problem the movement faced, though, was that in the context of the Cold War, calls for positive rights were seen as "communist." Civil rights -- or the rights enshrined in the US Constitution, on the other hand -- were deemed to be less controversial.

The Soviet Bloc had championed economic, social, and cultural human rights, while political and civil rights had been the hallmark of the Western nations. If the civil rights groups pushed for economic and social human rights, they would be branded communist. If they pushed for civil rights, they would be downplaying their demand for economic rights. Within this intersecting international and national context, groups like the NAACP chose, for pragmatic reasons, the frame of civil rights as the vehicle to demand racial justice.

With that decision, the movement was able to gain incredible traction in challenging the system of legal segregation that existed at that time in the US. But a negative consequence of that decision, which we can see in present forms of US racism, it that it left economic inequality untouched.

The point here is not to criticize the decision made by those civil right organizations, but rather, to understand the complex set of power dynamics that surround any attempt to gain rights and to use concepts of rights to challenge power.

Challenging Power

The Human Right Enterprise comes at a time when there are big shifts in how politics functions globally. In the 20th century, the focus was generally on governments as the primary place to challenge power. Trying to control a national government was one of the main strategies of liberation movements.

In his book, The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson argues that beginning in the mid-20th century, there has been a shift in how democracy functions. As people increasingly advocate for things like safe products and an end to domestic violence, the wall between the personal and the political becomes less clear. Increasingly, people are working to advocate for their rights in areas that in previous times were not considered to be political issues. And these claims to rights are a significant way that people are challenging power.

Drawing heavily on Schudson's work, in his book, the Life and Death of Democracy, John Keene argues that beginning around the middle of the 20th century, there was a proliferation of challenges to power, which existed outside the structures of formal representative democracy, working to challenge domination through an increasingly wide array of mechanisms.

 [T]he years since 1945 have seen the invention of about a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy. These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy, which supposed that citizens' needs are best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties.

… These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include -- to mention at random just a few -- public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens' juries, citizens' assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts' reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, ‘blogging' and other novel forms of media scrutiny.

We are in a period where power is increasingly understood to reside in transnational corporations, in complex social systems and in culture. It is larger, more slippery than forms of power that are seen to reside in governments. Claims to rights are one of the most powerful vehicles we have for packaging challenges to these diffuse forms of power. The Human Rights Enterprise claims that realizing the dreams that are embedded in rights requires that we look to complex social systems and to how challenges to power can work effectively.

A Right to Education

Armaline, Glasberg and Purkayastha have done helpful work showing us the complex process by which people express a grievance, give that grievance meaning by claiming that a right has been violated, and use those claims and pressures to transform the real ways that power operates.

When claiming that they have a right to an education, young people who are being priced out of college will continue to claim that they have a right to an education. And as their movements are successful and the claims they make ring true to others, that right comes into reality and begins to function as a way to challenge the government to give the necessary resources for them to realize their dreams. 

Truthout Tuesday, 23 August 2016 00:00 By Cynthia Kaufman

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Cynthia Kaaufman is the author of Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope and Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change. She is the irector of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College.


Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. She is the author of the forthcoming  Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, 2nd Ed

An End of Power?

We are entering a period where the social structures and mechanisms that have channeled and controlled power for the past few hundred years are shifting radically. In The End of Power, Venezuelan politician and former director of the World Bank, Moisés Naím, describes some serious ways in which the systems we have lived under for the past 50 years are becoming deeply unstable. In Europe and in the US, the political parties that have ruled nations since the end of World War II are crumbling before our eyes; dominant military forces are increasingly challenged by and unable to control small non-state actors; and small new companies are emerging with incredibly rapidity while older ones, once seen as the bedrocks of capitalism, sometimes crumble overnight.

The End of Power

Naím argues that three deep social transformations have undermined old barriers to new forces gaining power. He calls these transformations more, mobility and mentality. The fact that there are many more of us than there used to be has led to systems of control being overwhelmed. There are more people in the world, who are generally living longer and doing better than in past times. This is leading people all around the world to have rising expectations. "When people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regimen and control," he writes.

What Naím aptly describes is more like a destabilization of old structures and a shifting of power.

With mobility, cultures are being disrupted by mass migration. Where in prior years there was a pervasive problem of "brain drain," as educated people left countries of the global South and took their expensive educations with them, increasingly there is a "brain circulation," where those people are returning to their countries of origin and bringing with them new ideas and access to capital. Ideals of how it is possible to live circulate freely, and information about possible solutions to problems also circulate with increasing freedom and speed. With the mentality revolution, people all around the world, and especially young people, are thinking for themselves and questioning the traditional expectations of their societies.

The Transnational Ruling Class

While Naím argues that what is happening is an end to power, what he aptly describes is more like a destabilization of old structures and a shifting of power. In terms of culture, Naím sees the undermining of traditional cultures in almost entirely positive terms, as an unleashing of people's senses of possibility. But of course, along with the undermining of traditional cultures comes the spreading of capitalist forms of culture, and that can be seen as the spread of newer forms of power as much as it can be seen as the undermining of old ones.

Naím's book can be seen as an elegy for what sociologist William Robinson calls the "transnational ruling class." From the end of World War II until very recently, it looked to careful observers as if the Group of 5, the Group of 20, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were able to control the rules under which the economies of the world functioned. And their power was so great that any national government that wanted to do things according to a different set of rules would be denied access to the capital needed to keep its economy flowing, and pressured until it played the political and economic games by the rules those at the top of these institutions required. Thus, that transnational ruling class had enormous power over both economic and political systems.

Robinson argues that the last part of the 20th century was characterized by a system of polyarchy, where power came to transcend national governments, and instead rested in the hands of the transnational ruling class and its governing institutions. He argues that national elections became not as significant as they once had been as mechanisms for deciding how a group of people chose to live.

The Power to Control Greece

We can see this problem in action in the dramatic situation faced by the government of Greece in the summer of 2015. Prior to the US financial bubble bursting in 2008, Goldman Sachs and others had pressured a corrupt Greek government into taking out a set of very unsustainable loans. Transnational institutions pressured the Greek people to make good on the loans.

The power of capitalist processes to destroy people's lives is as powerful as ever.

The Greek government fell, and was replaced by a left-wing government led by what had been until that time a tiny and obscure party, Syriza. Syriza's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras came to power on a platform of rejecting the loans as illegitimate. The European Central Bank insisted that Greece not default. What followed was a very dramatic set of moves that showed how little power the people of Greece had over their political and economic futures.

Tsipras considered the loans to be illegitimate and unpayable. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble insisted on Greece's repayment, and threatened to cut off all capital to Greece if the country didn't pay up. Schäuble famously said that "elections change nothing." He led the charge of the European Central Bank in insisting that Greece squeeze more capital out of its economy by cutting pensions, raising taxes and selling off national assets.

National governments are officially in charge of what happens in their territory. But increasingly, since the second half of the 20th century, governments have been under tremendous pressure to follow the rules set by transnational institutions. Those institutions see their job as making the world safe for the routine profit making and liberty of the world's major multinational corporations.

The Instability of Capitalism

And yet, Naím is partially right. We do seem to be entering a period in which the ability of the transnational ruling class to provide an orderly atmosphere for those interests to operate is crumbling. But the system of capitalism, which those institutions work to manage, continues on its merry way. The power of capitalist processes to destroy people's lives is as powerful as ever.

Rather than being in a period of an end to power, we are in yet another period of an unmooring of power.

What has changed is that those capitalist processes are less able to be managed by a cohesive transnational ruling class, and they are less accountable to any particular regime of control. That is largely a result of finance capital coming to dominate over the more productive forms of capital that had previously been dominant, and a result of the neoliberal policies of those very transnational institutions that have spread an ideology of laissez faire.  

The power of individuals at the heads of major corporations, or at the heads of transnational institutions, does seem to be destabilizing. The forms of power that Naím and people like him have held in the past century -- the power as heads of corporations, as people in government and as people at the head of transnational organizations -- is shifting, and those people can no longer feel secure in their ability make things happen.

And yet for the rest of us, it is still the case that transnational capitalist processes rule our world. They are just ruling in a less orderly fashion. And whereas Robinson, the sociologist, sees the transnational ruling class anchored in institutions such as the World Trade Organization and World Bank as the rulers of this new world order, it may be that Naím is right -- that even those forms of governance over the capitalist systems are losing their grip on power.

Rather than meaning that we are in a world beyond power, perhaps it is all simply part of the cyclical and unstable nature of capitalism. In Marx and Engels' 1848 Communist Manifesto, the authors highlight the ways that, as economic processes spread to allow for the free flow of capital to wherever it is likely to get the greatest return, there goes with that a tremendous destabilization of society, along with intermittent attempts to manage the ensuing chaos. In one of the most oft-quoted passages in the Manifesto, they write:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.

Rather than being in a period of an end to power, we are in yet another period of an unmooring of power. The old systems that have managed collective decision making in the near past have been undermined. If we are to challenge dominating forms of power in the present circumstances, we need to look to ways to hold those powers accountable. And our understanding of the forces we are up against needs to be cognizant of the real powers that exist in capitalist processes, and other processes of domination.

Saturday, 11 June 2016, Truthout | Book Review Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Cynthia Kaufman


Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. She is the author of the forthcoming  Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, 2nd Ed


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