Heading into the November elections, you could be forgiven for assuming the GOP hold on Kansas isn’t going to loosen. The home base of the Koch brothers, the state has become a poster child of Tea Party Republicanism, toeing the far-right line on voter ID laws, abortion restrictions and a host of other issues. In 2012, the National Journal rated the congressional delegation from Kansas as the most conservative in the country—and that was before a Koch-funded campaign succeeded in ousting moderate Republicans in that year’s primaries. Oh, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach happens to be a leading author of Arizona’s SB 1070, the infamous immigration law that critics say encourages racial profiling. Kobach helped write the bill while serving as legal counsel at the far-right Federation for American Immigration Reform.
But in th lead-up to November, Kansas’s red-state armor began to show some cracks. Since mid-August, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Tea Party darling up for re-election this fall, has been polling 2 to 6 points behind challenger Paul Davis, a Democrat. Same with Kobach, whose cozy 5-point lead over his leftwing challenger shrunk to within the margin of error last month. Even Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, whose tenure in Congress predates the Reagan era, appears poised to lose his seat—polls show him trailing his little-known challenger, Independent Greg Orman.
Kansas People’s Action (KPA)—an black- and Latino-led organization dedicated to fighting crony capitalism, racism and big money politics—isn’t shy about taking credit for the turnaround. “Their poll numbers are down in large part due to the work that we’ve been doing,” says KPA’s executive director, Sulma Arias. That work includes reaching out to a set of 112,000 less-frequent voters who are black and Latino. The message they tell voters? “Kobach is trying to game the system by messing with the ballot and pushing restrictions on voting that help him and his friends, like Brownback and Roberts,” says Arias.
Arias is referencing measures like the state's voter ID law, authored by Kobach. It requires that would-be voters in Kansas prove U.S. citizenship when registering and show a valid photo ID on Election Day—a dual test 7 percent of eligible U.S. voters cannot pass, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study. African Americans and Latinos are particularly disenfranchised by such laws: 25 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Latinos lack the requisite ID.
When the law was passed in 2011, Arias was running Sunflower Community Action, an affiliate of National People's Action, a national network of community organizing groups. In her two-year tenure, Arias had made it her mission to broaden the group’s focus from working with an exclusively black membership in Wichita, primarily on affordable housing, to reaching out to the state’s growing Latino population, initiating campaigns to secure driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants.
Believing that Kobach was overstepping his bounds as secretary of state—a position that typically entails enforcing laws, not writing them—Arias decided someone needed to take on Kobach and his policies directly. So Sunflower launched a 501(c)4 advocacy arm, KPA, that set its sights on challenging the policies that have been championed by the state’s far-right Republican leadership, particularly Kobach and Brownback.
Teresa Garvey, a bookkeeper and Peruvian immigrant living in Wichita, learned about Kobach in 2012 when she saw KPA organizer Louis Goseland talking about him on TV. “He said Kobach was pursuing illegal immigrants instead of doing his job,” she recalls. “I wanted to find out what he meant by that. It made me want to get involved.” She’s now an active KPA volunteer. Working with the group has made her think for the first time “about the experience of black or poor white communities, how we could work together to make Kansas a better place,” she says.
Like Garvey, Reverend Carieta Cain Grizzell, of Wichita’s Grant Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, first took notice of KPA as the anti-Kobach campaign gathered steam in 2012. “That was when I first heard about Louis Goseland and the KPA,” she says. “So I went to a meeting and I really got excited about what they were doing. It really fell in line with what I’ve been about all my life.” Grizzell says she was particularly galvanized by KPA’s work against the Kobach-authored voter-ID law. “It’s like poll taxes,” says Grizzell. “Kobach has made voting rights a farce in the state of Kansas.”
For Grizzell, KPA’s ability to unite many different kinds of people around an issue like voting rights illustrates how vital the group’s work is. “I really like the fact that it brings together the African-American, Latino and poor white communities,” she says. “We work together as one united front.”
KPA has made it a mission to expose how policies Kobach and Brownback supported—from voter ID laws to the food stamp cuts in 2013 that kicked 20,000 Kansans off the rolls to an SB 1070-style immigration law—breed racial and economic injustice.
The immigration campaign gained national attention in the summer of 2013, when 300 KPA activists converged on Kobach’s residence in Kansas City to call for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. Many activists placed empty shoes on Kobach’s doorstep, symbolizing their deported family members, friends and neighbors. Kobach quickly issued a scathing response to the action, calling the activists “illegal aliens” and accusing them of “KKK type of intimidation.”
The comments ignited a national firestorm. Perhaps more importantly, they galvanized black and brown communities in Kansas to see their struggles as connected. “The black community thought of itself as separate until Kobach made that KKK comparison,” says Reuben Eckels, KPA’s deputy director and a pastor at New Day Christian Church in Wichita. Many weren’t very aware of Kobach’s policy record, he says. “We took his KKK comments to the African-American community and started talking about voter registration,” Eckels says. Arias says the converse was true for Latinos, who were aware of Kobach’s draconian immigration laws but less aware of issues like voter ID regulations.
The protests over police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, also helped knit together Kansas’s African-American and Latino communities. Just days after the protests began, Arias connected deportations and detentions in Kansas with police brutality in Ferguson in an online essay, “Why Ferguson Matters to Latinos.”
“We, as Brown, Hispanic, Latino and Immigrant community should be yelling just as loud, ‘Hands up don’t Shoot,’ ” she wrote. “This is the time to stand together in rage and love for our communities.”
Soon after, Sunflower began gathering blacks and Latinos for community forums and solidarity actions around Ferguson. A week and a half later, at a community forum organized by Sunflower, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer pledged his support for introducing a mandatory dashboard and body camera program for the city’s police department—a demand Sunflower began voicing in 2005. Officials plan to have the program operational by the end of the year.
Black-brown unity is on full display as voting day approaches. This spring, KPA launched a political action fund to reach out to voters. Powered by Latino volunteers like Garvey and African-American volunteers like Grizzell, KPA Political Fund is one of the only voter campaigns in Kansas to make use of a predictive dialer, a device that saves time by dialing automatically. In addition to educating voters about Brownback and Kobach, KPA Political Fund has lined up monitors to observe both primary and general elections, making sure that eligible voters without ID are allowed to use provisional ballots, as required by law.
But Eckels stresses that while KPA has worked very hard to oust Kobach and Brownback this November, the group is an independent organization. “We’ve been let down by both parties,” he says. “We’re more interested in holding people accountable to the issues. Eventually, we may field our own candidates.”
For now, an upset of Brownback or Kobach would be a major coup. Even with sinking poll numbers, the two have a long list of wealthy allies, from the Heritage Foundation to the Koch family, and there’s no reason to think they’ll go down without a fight. But Garvey and Grizzell remain confident. “We’re now at a place where almost a quarter of Kansas is black and brown,” says Grizzell. “That’s power.”
The news that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis will not run for mayor of Chicago due to illness is heartbreaking.
Speaking as a colleague, comrade and friend, I can say with certainty that Karen Lewis is one of most brilliant and committed labor leaders today. Underneath her down-to-earth demeanor are nerves of steel.
After she took office, I attended several debates between Lewis and Etoy Ridgnal, a local director of Stand for Children, a corporate-backed booster group for school privatization. The Chicago Urban League debate was particularly instructive. After Lewis schooled her opponent about the relationship between race, poverty and education—the “opportunity gap”—an African American woman, in apparent aw of Lewis, asked me why no one had explained the connection “like she just did.” She wondered out loud why other union leaders had “allowed them to blame the teachers.”
At one point, Lewis interrogated Ridgnal about the rightwing billionaires who fund Stand for Children—like the Walton Family Foundation, started by Walmart’s founders. As Ridgnal, seemingly flummoxed, processed the question, Lewis, with visible contempt, questioned how “these rich white people can pretend to love our children more than we do.” I recall that moment because Lewis’ emotion touched me, and the audience went wild.
But she wasn’t done. Lewis dared Ridgnal to reconcile her funders’ newfound sensitivity to the needs of black children with business practices and actions—Walmart’s low wages and right-wing politics—that marginalize black workers and impoverish their neighborhoods. The debate was effectively over.
A formidable polemicist, Lewis unflinchingly tackles race—once calling Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education agenda “racist”—in ways her white counterparts cannot. She and the CTU have almost singlehandedly rehabilitated the labor brand in Chicago by addressing the issues affecting poor and marginalized communities. The CTU has made racism a central issue in everything from contract negotiations to marches against school closings. Lewis became so popular in black communities—unusual for a contemporary labor leader—that the first calls for her to run for mayor started there.
Lewis’ usually low-key style may make her opponents underestimate her. Jonah Edelman, co-founder of Stand for Children, is a case in point. In 2011, Edelman bragged to a group of wealthy corporate backers that he had outmaneuvered CTU with the passage of a bill requiring a 75 percent strike authorization threshold for the union. Edelman was confident the union could never muster the votes. A year later, Lewis’ union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, with 90 percent of all members and 98 percent of those voting. On September 10, 2012, they went on strike. Edelman has since receded into the background.
Upon taking office in 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel adopted the rhetoric of corporate education “reformers” such as Stand for Children, casting himself as the champion of black children and the CTU as the defender of the status quo. With no mention of poverty—the real driver of student achievement—he demanded an extension of the school day and, in an end run around the union, offered financial incentives to teachers if they would agree to work longer days. He, too, would find out the hard way who Karen Lewis was.
Citing labor law, Lewis accused Emanuel of altering the terms and conditions of employment outside collective bargaining—an illegal act. Emanuel lost the legal battle. Then Lewis—who did not object to longer school day—went further and demanded that the extra school hours be filled with programs that had been lost to budget cuts, such as art, music, drama, languages and physical education. As the teachers went on strike, it became clear that Lewis and the CTU had won over public opinion. Polls showed that the majority Chicagoans supported the striking teachers. Furthermore, almost 90 percent wanted teachers to be compensated for the longer school day. The progressive impulse is alive and well in Chicago communities, in particular among African Americans and Latinos—folks who know something about servitude.
Lewis has legions of fans and supporters, including many In These Times readers. Our thoughts are with her as we wish for a quick and full recovery. But while she recuperates, the potential impact of Lewis’ absence from this race is too urgent to set aside.
Her insurgent campaign promised to shake up a city whose politics had atrophied thanks to corporate capture of the city’s political institutions. For 22 years, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, an outsized corporate role in municipal elections—through campaign contributions and outright corruption—secured a pro-business political climate that marginalized the public voice and was faithfully enforced by the mayor and his perennially compliant City Council. Daley’s school privatization scheme, his privatization of city parking meters, and his 2006 veto of a popular living wage ordinance are only a few examples.
During Daley’s six-term tenure from 1989 to 2011, those corporate big pockets scared off any serious challengers, turning mayoral elections into coronations. Without Karen Lewis in the 2015 race, the same ritual will likely play out again. It is disheartening that Emanuel will face no serious progressive challenge, even as polls show his popularity is somewhere between that of used car salesmen and Ebola.
A fearless progressive, Lewis would have offered a sharp ideological contrast with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She has embraced movements and causes, beyond education, that directly challenge the city’s corporate elites: fast food workers’ Fight for 15 campaign; a financial transactions tax on stock sales and other financial trading, which would generate billions for the city treasury; a $15-an-hour minimum wage; and of course, an elected school board. Lewis continually makes the link between poverty and violence, and talks of the need to prioritize higher wage, union rights and other strategies for worker uplift, which she sees not just as a social justice issue, but an educational imperative—family income is the number-one predictor of a child’s success in school. Most recently, Lewis endorsed an ordinance for the city to make reparations to victims of police torture under the notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge—something no other labor leader has done.
Contrast these views with Rahm Emanuel’s. He declared the financial transaction tax off the table and begrudgingly offered a $13-an-hour compromise to the proposed $15 minimum wage (which over 80 percent of voters support)—a political sacrifice necessitated by the issue’s popularity and importance to Democrats in this election season. On the question of compensation for Jon Burge’s victims, he has hemmed and hawed for a year.
Whether or not Lewis won, the fight would have forced Rahm Emanuel to elucidate and answer for his pro-corporate policies. And her positions offer a glimpse of what the election platform of a viable progressive candidate might look like. With few exceptions, Democrats elsewhere are running distressingly vacuous campaigns that elide major issues like economic inequality, race and climate change.
Taking on Emanuel would not have been easy. He has already raised $9 million. Were Lewis to lose, despite polling 9 percentage points ahead of Emanuel in July, her campaign could have, at the very least, further exposed the distorting role of money in politics. And were she to win, it could have offered a template for how a populist message—carried by the right candidate and backed by aggressive grassroots voter registration, education and turnout—can neutralize the oligarchs’ money.
Lewis’s departure from the race was a huge blow to the Chicago Teachers Union and its grassroots allies. But despite their disappointment, they are not conceding anything in this election. As movement builders, they take a long view of events. So they are proceeding with a grand strategy to alter the city’s power dynamics. In coalition with United Working Families, they are campaigning to reshape the city council by electing progressives. An independent council will be the best counterweight to Emanuel's corporate agenda, in the event that he wins.
A key strategy is to force aldermen to go on record on an array of issues—affordable housing, budget cuts, school closings, economic development and more—or face electoral consequence. The keystones of this effort are petition drives to put the elected school board question and the $15-an-hour minimum wage on the November ballot. Organizers hope to use both initiatives to motivate voter turnout. (The power to appoint the school board is so important to Emanuel he has conditioned his support for any aldermanic candidates upon their opposition to an elected board.)
Action Now, a CTU community ally, has registered 18,000 voters in 10 wards, constituting 20 percent of eligible voters in those districts, according to director Katelyn Johnson. Many other union-allied community groups—Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Pilsen Alliance, to name just a few—are similarly engaged. And a number of CTU members are running for city council seats. They have adopted a progressive platform around educational and economic justice issues.
These leaders, activists and organizations—not to mention thousands of CTU members, parents and students who found their voice in the 2012 strike—provide the critical infrastructure necessary for continued community struggles; future electoral endeavors; eventual dismantling of machine politics; defense of progressive political allies; and a strong social movement to confront, in perpetuity, unchecked and corrosive corporate power. As Johnson declared, “We’re in it for the long haul. We don’t do any work in a vacuum.” These activists are well schooled in the perils of electoral work, especially when conducted in isolation, disconnected from long-term base-building.
Karen Lewis’s legacy as union president is her commitment to building exactly these kinds of strong, bottom-up movements, led by grassroots community folks and union members. Lewis herself reaffirmed upon stepping down, “It's not about me, it's about a movement.” It’s the same mantra she has repeated during her past four years as Chicago Teachers Union president. In her stepping aside, Chicago has been robbed of a true people’s fighter in the mayoral race. But regardless of who gets elected, as progressives we should never stop building our movements—just as Karen Lewis has always insisted.
First posted at Waging Nonviolence.
History remembers Mohandas Gandhi’s Salt March as one of the great episodes of resistance in the past century and as a campaign which struck a decisive blow against British imperialism. In the early morning of March 12, 1930, Gandhi and a trained cadre of 78 followers from his ashram began a march of more than 200 miles to the sea. Three and a half weeks later, on April 5, surrounded by a crowd of thousands, Gandhi waded into the edge of the ocean, approached an area on the mud flats where evaporating water left a thick layer of sediment, and scooped up a handful of salt.
Gandhi’s act defied a law of the British Raj mandating that Indians buy salt from the government and prohibiting them from collecting their own. His disobedience set off a mass campaign of non-compliance that swept the country, leading to as many as 100,000 arrests. In a famous quote published in the Manchester Guardian, revered poet Rabindranath Tagore described the campaign’s transformative impact: “Those who live in England, far away from the East, have now got to realize that Europe has completely lost her former prestige in Asia.” For the absentee rulers in London, it was “a great moral defeat.”
And yet, judging by what Gandhi gained at the bargaining table at the conclusion of the campaign, one can form a very different view of the salt satyagraha. Evaluating the 1931 settlement made between Gandhi and Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, analysts Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler have contended that “the campaign was a failure” and “a British victory,” and that it would be reasonable to think that Gandhi “gave away the store.” These conclusions have a long precedent. When the pact with Irwin was first announced, insiders within the Indian National Congress, Gandhi’s organization, were bitterly disappointed. Future Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru, deeply depressed, wrote that he felt in his heart “a great emptiness as of something precious gone, almost beyond recall.”
That the Salt March might at once be considered a pivotal advance for the cause of Indian independence and a botched campaign that produced little tangible result seems to be a puzzling paradox. But even stranger is the fact that such a result is not unique in the world of social movements. Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Ala., had similarly incongruous outcomes: On the one hand, it generated a settlement that fell far short of desegregating the city, a deal which disappointed local activists who wanted more than just minor changes at a few downtown stores; at the same time, Birmingham is regarded as one of the key drives of the civil rights movement, doing perhaps more than any other campaign to push toward the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This seeming contradiction is worthy of examination. Most significantly, it illustrates how momentum-driven mass mobilizations promote change in ways that are confusing when viewed with the assumptions and biases of mainstream politics. From start to finish — in both the way in which he structured the demands of the Salt March and the way in which he brought his campaign to a close — Gandhi confounded the more conventional political operatives of his era. Yet the movements he led profoundly shook the structures of British imperialism.
For those who seek to understand today’s social movements, and those who wish to amplify them, questions about how to evaluate a campaign’s success and when it is appropriate to declare victory remain as relevant as ever. To them, Gandhi’s may still have something useful and unexpected to say.The instrumental approach
Understanding the Salt March and its lessons for today requires stepping back to look at some of the fundamental questions of how social movements effect change. With proper context, one can say that Gandhi’s actions were brilliant examples of the use of symbolic demands and symbolic victory. But what is involved in these concepts?
All protest actions, campaigns and demands have both instrumental and symbolic dimensions. Different types of political organizing, however, combine these in different proportions.
In conventional politics, demands are primarily instrumental, designed to have a specific and concrete result within the system. In this model, interest groups push for policies or reforms that benefit their base. These demands are carefully chosen based on what might be feasible to achieve, given the confines of the existing political landscape. Once a drive for an instrumental demand is launched, advocates attempt to leverage their group’s power to extract a concession or compromise that meets their needs. If they can deliver for their members, they win.
Even though they function primarily outside the realm of electoral politics, unions and community-based organizations in the lineage of Saul Alinsky—groups based on building long-term institutional structures—approach demands in a primarily instrumental fashion. As author and organizer Rinku Sen explains, Alinsky established a long-standing norm in community organizing which asserted that “winnability is of primary importance in choosing issues” and that community groups should focus on “immediate, concrete changes.”
A famous example in the world of community organizing is the demand for a stoplight at an intersection identified by neighborhood residents as being dangerous. But this is just one option. Alinskyite groups might attempt to win better staffing at local social service offices, an end to discriminatory redlining of a particular neighborhood by banks and insurance companies, or a new bus route to provide reliable transportation in an underserved area. Environmental groups might push for a ban on a specific chemical known to be toxic for wildlife. A union might wage a fight to win a raise for a particular group of employees at a workplace, or to address a scheduling issue.
By eking out modest, pragmatic wins around such issues, these groups improve lives and bolster their organizational structures. The hope is that, over time, small gains will add up to substantial reforms. Slowly and steadily, social change is achieved.The symbolic turn
For momentum-driven mass mobilizations, including the Salt March, campaigns function differently. Activists in mass movements must design actions and choose demands that tap into broader principles, creating a narrative about the moral significance of their struggle. Here, the most important thing about a demand is not its potential policy impact or winnability at the bargaining table. Most critical are its symbolic properties—how well a demand serves to dramatize for the public the urgent need to remedy an injustice.
Like conventional politicians and structure-based organizers, those trying to build protest movements also have strategic goals, and they might seek to address specific grievances as part of their campaigns. But their overall approach is more indirect. These activists are not necessarily focused on reforms that can be feasibly obtained in an existing political context. Instead, momentum-driven movements aim to alter the political climate as a whole, changing perceptions of what is possible and realistic. They do this by shifting public opinion around an issue and activating an ever-expanding base of supporters. At their most ambitious, these movements take things that might be considered politically unimaginable—women’s suffrage, civil rights, the end of a war, the fall of a dictatorial regime, marriage equality for same-sex couples—and turn them into political inevitabilities.
Negotiations over specific policy proposals are important, but they come at the endgame of a movement, once public opinion has shifted and power-holders are scrambling to respond to disruptions that activist mobilizations have created. In the early stages, as movements gain steam, the key measure of a demand is not its instrumental practicality, but its capacity to resonate with the public and arouse broad-based sympathy for a cause. In other words, the symbolic trumps the instrumental.
A variety of thinkers have commented on how mass movements, because they are pursuing this more indirect route to creating change, must be attentive to creating a narrative in which campaigns of resistance are consistently gaining momentum and presenting new challenges to those in power. In his 2001 book Doing Democracy, Bill Moyer, a veteran social movement trainer, stresses the importance of “sociodrama actions” which “clearly reveal to the public how the power-holders violate society’s widely held values[.]” Through well-planned shows of resistance—ranging from creative marches and pickets, to boycotts and other forms of non-cooperation, to more confrontational interventions such as sit-ins and occupations—movements engage in a process of “politics as theater” which, in Moyer’s words, “creates a public social crisis that transforms a social problem into a critical public issue.”
The types of narrow proposals that are useful in behind-the-scenes political negotiations are generally not the kinds of demands that inspire effective sociodrama. Commenting on this theme, leading New Left organizer and anti-Vietnam War activist Tom Hayden argues that new movements do not arise based on narrow interests or on abstract ideology; instead, they are propelled by a specific type of symbolically loaded issue—namely, “moral injuries that compel a moral response.” In his book The Long Sixties, Hayden cites several examples of such injuries. They include the desegregation of lunch counters for the civil rights movement, the right to leaflet for Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, and the farmworker movement’s denunciation of the short-handled hoe, a tool that became emblematic of the exploitation of immigrant laborers because it forced workers in the fields to perform crippling stoop labor.
In some ways, these issues turn the standard of “winnability” on its head. “The grievances were not simply the material kind, which could be solved by slight adjustments to the status quo,” Hayden writes. Instead, they posed unique challenges to those in power. “To desegregate one lunch counter would begin a tipping process toward the desegregation of larger institutions; to permit student leafleting would legitimize a student voice in decisions; to prohibit the short-handled hoe meant accepting workplace safety regulations.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the contrast between symbolic and instrumental demands can create conflict between activists coming from different organizing traditions.
Saul Alinsky was suspicious of actions that produced only “moral victories” and derided symbolic demonstrations that he viewed as mere public relations stunts. Ed Chambers, who took over as director of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, shared his mentor’s suspicion of mass mobilizations. In his book “Roots for Radicals,” Chambers writes, “The movements of the 1960s and 70s—the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women’s movement — were vivid, dramatic, and attractive.” Yet, in their commitment to “romantic issues,” Chambers believes, they were too focused on attracting the attention of the media rather than exacting instrumental gains. “Members of these movements often concentrated on symbolic moral victories like placing flowers in the rifle barrels of National Guardsmen, embarrassing a politician for a moment or two, or enraging white racists,” he writes. “They often avoided any reflection about whether or not the moral victories led to any real change.”
In his time, Gandhi would hear many similar criticisms. Yet the impact of campaigns such as his march to the sea would provide a formidable rebuttal.Difficult not to laugh
The salt satyagraha—or campaign of nonviolent resistance that began with Gandhi’s march — is a defining example of using escalating, militant and unarmed confrontation to rally public support and effect change. It is also a case in which the use of symbolic demands, at least initially, provoked ridicule and consternation.
When charged with selecting a target for civil disobedience, Gandhi’s choice was preposterous. At least that was a common response to his fixation on the salt law as the key point upon which to base the Indian National Congress’ challenge to British rule. Mocking the emphasis on salt, The Statesman noted, “It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians.”
In 1930, the instrumentally focused organizers within the Indian National Congress were focused on constitutional questions—whether India would gain greater autonomy by winning “dominion status” and what steps toward such an arrangement the British might concede. The salt laws were a minor concern at best, hardly high on their list of demands. Biographer Geoffrey Ashe argues that, in this context, Gandhi’s choice of salt as a basis for a campaign was “the weirdest and most brilliant political challenge of modern times.”
It was brilliant because defiance of the salt law was loaded with symbolic significance. “Next to air and water,” Gandhi argued, “salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.” It was a simple commodity that everyone was compelled to buy, and which the government taxed. Since the time of the Mughal Empire, the state’s control over salt was a hated reality. The fact that Indians were not permitted to freely collect salt from natural deposits or to pan for salt from the sea was a clear illustration of how a foreign power was unjustly profiting from the subcontinent’s people and its resources.
Since the tax affected everyone, the grievance was universally felt. The fact that it most heavily burdened the poor added to its outrage. The price of salt charged by the government, Ashe writes, “had a built-in levy—not large, but enough to cost a laborer with a family up to two weeks wages a year.” It was a textbook moral injury. And people responded swiftly to Gandhi’s charge against it.
Indeed, those who had ridiculed the campaign soon had reason to stop laughing. In each village through which the satyagrahis marched, they attracted massive crowds—with as many of 30,000 people gathering to see the pilgrims pray and to hear Gandhi speak of the need for self-rule. As historian Judith Brown writes, Gandhi “grasped intuitively that civil resistance was in many ways an exercise in political theater, where the audience was as important as the actors.” In the procession’s wake, hundreds of Indians who served in local administrative posts for the imperial government resigned their positions.
After the march reached the sea and disobedience began, the campaign achieved an impressive scale. Throughout the country, huge numbers of dissidents began panning for salt and mining natural deposits. Buying illegal packets of the mineral, even if they were of poor quality, became a badge of honor for millions. The Indian National Congress set up its own salt depot, and groups of organized activists led nonviolent raids on the government salt works, blocking roads and entrances with their bodies in an attempt to shut down production. News reports of the beatings and hospitalizations that resulted were broadcast throughout the world.
Soon, the defiance expanded to incorporate local grievances and to take on additional acts of noncooperation. Millions joined the boycott of British cloth and liquor, a growing number of village officials resigned their posts, and, in some provinces, farmers refused to pay land taxes. In increasingly varied forms, mass non-compliance took hold throughout a vast territory. And, in spite of energetic attempts at repression by British authorities, it continued month after month.
Finding issues that could “attract wide support and maintain the cohesion of the movement,” Brown notes, was “no simple task in a country where there were such regional, religious and socio-economic differences.” And yet salt fit the bill precisely. Motilal Nehru, father of the future prime minister, remarked admiringly, “The only wonder is that no one else ever thought of it.”Beyond the pact
If the choice of salt as a demand had been controversial, the manner in which Gandhi concluded the campaign would be equally so. Judged by instrumental standards, the resolution to the salt satyagraha fell short. By early 1931, the campaign had reverberated throughout the country, yet it was also losing momentum. Repression had taken a toll, much of Congress’ leadership had been arrested, and tax resisters whose property had been seized by the government were facing significant financial hardship. Moderate politicians and members of the business community who supported the Indian National Congress appealed to Gandhi for a resolution. Even many militants with the organization concurred that talks were appropriate.
Accordingly, Gandhi entered into negotiations with Lord Irwin in February 1931, and on March 5 the two announced a pact. On paper, many historians have argued, it was an anti-climax. The key terms of the agreement hardly seemed favorable to the Indian National Congress: In exchange for suspending civil disobedience, protesters being held in jail would be released, their cases would be dropped, and, with some exceptions, the government would lift the repressive security ordinances it had imposed during the satyagraha. Authorities would return fines collected by the government for tax resistance, as well as seized property that had not yet been sold to third parties. And activists would be permitted to continue a peaceful boycott of British cloth.
However, the pact deferred discussion of questions about independence to future talks, with the British making no commitments to loosen their grip on power. (Gandhi would attend a Roundtable conference in London later in 1931 to continue negotiations, but this meeting made little headway.) The government refused to conduct an inquiry into police action during the protest campaign, which had been a firm demand of Indian National Congress activists. Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, the Salt Act itself would remain law, with the concession that the poor in coastal areas would be allowed to produce salt in limited quantities for their own use.
Some of the politicians closest to Gandhi felt extremely dismayed by the terms of the agreement, and a variety of historians have joined in their assessment that the campaign failed to reach its goals. In retrospect, it is certainly legitimate to argue about whether Gandhi gave away too much in negotiations. At the same time, to judge the settlement merely in instrumental terms is to miss its wider impact.Claiming symbolic victory
If not by short-term, incremental gains, how does a campaign that employs symbolic demands or tactics measure its success?
For momentum-driven mass mobilizations, there are two essential metrics by which to judge progress. Since the long-term goal of the movement is to shift public opinion on an issue, the first measure is whether a given campaign has won more popular support for a movement’s cause. The second measure is whether a campaign builds the capacity of the movement to escalate further. If a drive allows activists to fight another day from a position of greater strength—with more members, superior resources, enhanced legitimacy and an expanded tactical arsenal—organizers can make a convincing case that they have succeeded, regardless of whether the campaign has made significant progress in closed-door bargaining sessions.
Throughout his career as a negotiator, Gandhi stressed the importance of being willing to compromise on non-essentials. As Joan Bondurant observes in her perceptive study of the principles of satyagraha, one of his political tenets was the “reduction of demands to a minimum consistent with the truth.” The pact with Irwin, Gandhi believed, gave him such a minimum, allowing the movement to end the campaign in a dignified fashion and to prepare for future struggle. For Gandhi, the viceroy’s agreement to allow for exceptions to the salt law, even if they were limited, represented a critical triumph of principle. Moreover, he had forced the British to negotiate as equals—a vital precedent that would be extended into subsequent talks over independence.
In their own fashion, many of Gandhi’s adversaries agreed on the significance of these concessions, seeing the pact as a misstep of lasting consequence for imperial powers. As Ashe writes, the British officialdom in Delhi “ever afterwards… groaned over Irwin’s move as the fatal blunder from which the Raj never recovered.” In a now-infamous speech, Winston Churchill, a leading defender of the British Empire, proclaimed that it was “alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi… striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” The move, he claimed, had allowed Gandhi—a man he saw as a “fanatic” and a “fakir”—to step out of prison and “[emerge] on the scene a triumphant victor.”
While insiders had conflicted views about the campaign’s outcome, the broad public was far less equivocal. Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the radicals in the Indian National Congress who was skeptical of Gandhi’s pact, had to revise his view when he saw the reaction in the countryside. As Ashe recounts, when Bose traveled with Gandhi from Bombay to Delhi, he “saw ovations such as he had never witnessed before.” Bose recognized the vindication. “The Mahatma had judged correctly,” Ashe continues. “By all the rules of politics he had been checked. But in the people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Englishman had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details.”
In his influential 1950 biography of Gandhi, still widely read today, Louis Fischer provides a most dramatic appraisal of the Salt March’s legacy: “India was now free,” he writes. “Technically, legally, nothing had changed. India was still a British colony.” And yet, after the salt satyagraha, “it was inevitable that Britain should some day refuse to rule India and that India should some day refuse to be ruled.”
Subsequent historians have sought to provide more nuanced accounts of Gandhi’s contribution to Indian independence, distancing themselves from a first generation of hagiographic biographies that uncritically held up Gandhi as the “father of a nation.” Writing in 2009, Judith Brown cites a variety of social and economic pressures that contributed to Britain’s departure from India, particularly the geopolitical shifts that accompanied the Second World War. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that drives such as the Salt March were critical, playing central roles in building the Indian National Congress’ organization and popular legitimacy. Although mass displays of protest alone did not expel the imperialists, they profoundly altered the political landscape. Civil resistance, Brown writes, “was a crucial part of the environment in which the British had to make decisions about when and how to leave India.”
As Martin Luther King Jr. would in Birmingham some three decades later, Gandhi accepted a settlement that had limited instrumental value but that allowed the movement to claim a symbolic win and to emerge in a position of strength. Gandhi’s victory in 1931 was not a final one, nor was King’s in 1963. Social movements today continue to fight struggles against racism, discrimination, economic exploitation and imperial aggression. But, if they choose, they can do so aided by the powerful example of forebears who converted moral victory into lasting change.
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Helping find a cure for cancer or “pinkwashing” carcinogenic pollution?
That is the question being raised upon the news that one of the world’s largest fossil fuel services firms is partnering with the Susan G. Komen Foundation on a breast cancer awareness campaign, despite possible links between fracking and cancer.
According to energy services firm Baker Hughes, “The company will paint and distribute a total of 1,000 pink drill bits worldwide” as a “reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening and education to help find the cures” for breast cancer. The firm, which is involved in hydraulic fracturing, is also donating $100,000 to the Komen Foundation in what it calls a “yearlong partnership.”
The announcement comes in the same month Baker Hughes agreed to begin disclosing the chemicals it uses in the fracking process, publishing them at fracfocus.org, the industry's website. Health advocates and environmental activists have long prodded the industry for full disclosure - especially since scientific studies have raised the prospect of a link between oil and gas exploration and cancer.
For example, Texas regulators reviewing cancer rates in an area of heavy natural gas development recently concluded that “consistent with previous analyses, female breast cancer had a higher than expected number of cases in the area.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that a recent government study found that “some workers at oil and gas sites where fracking occurs are routinely exposed to high levels of benzene,” a chemical scientists believe is a carcinogen that may be linked to breast cancer. And a 2012 study by University of Colorado researchers found “higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to [gas] wells as compared to those residing further [away].”
Yet some of the findings of the studies have been disputed. Responding to the scientific study about cancer and fracking, a spokeswoman for the Komen Foundation told International Business Times that "the evidence to this point does not establish a connection between fracking and breast cancer." The spokeswoman also said the partnership "grew from Baker Hughes' involvement in our Houston Race for the Cure" and that "the issue is personal to them and their employees.”
If the Komen Foundation seems like a familiar icon of political controversy, that’s because it is. Only two years ago, the foundation provoked a firestorm of criticism for its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood efforts to combat breast cancer. The move was “seen by many as a statement against legal abortion,” said the New York Times.
The foundation has also been accused before of helping “pinkwash” corporations whose products critics say may actually promote cancer. It’s the same accusation being aired today. Indeed, writing at EcoWatch, biologist Sandra Steingraber labeled the Komen alliance with Baker Hughes as “pinkwashing,” and said of the foundation: “It’s time to stop taking money from the frackers.”
To be sure, there remain many open questions about the health effects of oil and gas exploration. But with billions of dollars in potential profits on the line, there’s little doubt that the oil and gas industry will follow other toxic industries throughout history by trying to downplay such questions.
One of the most reliable strategies to suppress this line of questioning is a public relations campaign designed to recast an industry as an earnest public health advocate, rather than a public health menace. Such initiatives aim to redirect people’s attention by convincing them to arrive at industry-friendly conclusions. In this case, the campaign in question aims to convince Americans to equate oil and gas exploration with pink drill bits and anti-cancer crusades rather than, say, huge rigs near schools and scientific studies about carcinogens.
With the help of allies like the Komen Foundation, the audacious initiative may work.
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This fall, Ken Burns—the nation’s director laureate of all things sepia-toned—offered an epic, exhaustive documentary that served to rebuke just about every feature of our postliberal political order. “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” blanketed the PBS airwaves for 14 hours, summoning the viewing public back to the halcyon days of the Fair and New Deals, and thus making a powerful de facto case for liberal rule by enlightened patrician overseers.
But that, of course, is just the problem. By rendering the successive Roosevelt revolutions of the early 20th century as a single, orderly procession of outsized personalities—and delicately navigated family intimacies—en route to their rendezvous with destiny, Burns’ opus afforded us precious few glimpses of the democratic social movements that gave powerful shape to Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Era and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.
By the film’s logic, if Puerto Rico and the Philippines were annexed to the American sphere of influence, it was largely thanks to Teddy Roosevelt’s martial spirit. If unions organized, it was because FDR threw his worldshaking charisma behind the Wagner Act. Farmers weren’t the angry protesters who sparked the successive rebellions of the Populist movement and the Nonpartisan League; rather, they were the grateful recipients of FDR-sanctioned subsidies. Labor leaders appear scarcely at all, even though labor’s effect was felt strongly enough in the White House that FDR is rumored to have greeted several major proposals with “Clear it with Sidney”—meaning Sidney Hillman, head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’s PAC.
The film does give one discordant suggestion that some left-leaning partners in the New Deal coalition might have grown restive: Louisiana’s populist kingpin Huey Long threatens a challenge to FDR in the 1936 Democratic primaries, promising a guaranteed income for all Americans and a ceiling on the earnings of the plutocrat class. But that awkward moment mercifully passes with news that a disgruntled state officeholder gunned down Long on the steps of the Louisiana statehouse. Problem solved—now, back to the Roosevelts and their intimacies!
To further garland the tale of the earth-moving Roosevelts, Burns marshals a burbling chorus of consensus from historians of the presidency, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and erstwhile Newsweek editor-in-chief Jon Meacham, who marvel at the extraordinary fitness that the nation’s leadership class perennially displays for the historical challenge at hand. Here, for instance, is Meacham in a fit of pundit ecstasy as he ponders the close alliance of FDR and Winston Churchill during the Second World War: “They heard the music of history in their minds, and they were devoted to the idea that they would save the world.”
Just pause a moment and try applying those sentiments to any living, breathing human you happen to know. Is it anything more than a long-winded way of calling that poor soul a sociopath?
Needless to say, the drama of Churchill and Roosevelt’s joint messiahship crowds out a rather more enormous force devoted to saving the world from the Axis powers: the Soviet Union, which sacrificed more than 20 million people in repelling Hitler’s troops from the Eastern front.
This is not to say that FDR did not indeed possess great qualities of executive vision and leadership. It is, rather, to question whether the fable of a zeitgeist-bending, aristocratic savior is a plausible or healthy thing for a putative republic.
Yet the Burns series is devoted to this curiously genetic model of national leadership. Each episode of the series begins with an odd incantation of Rooseveltian historical determinism: “Before the names Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin were indelibly etched into the American consciousness, and the course of human history was forever changed by their individual endeavors, a prominent family made a point of teaching the value of altruism, the power of perseverance, and the virtue of helping out one’s fellow man.”
That may be intimate, but it’s not exactly history.
Dear White People is a well-produced directorial debut by Justin Simien, whose analysis of race and power is just as muddled and contradictory as the young and confused elite college students he portrays. But just because the film is internally incoherent doesn’t mean it’s not fun, funny or occasionally touching.
Set in the present day, the film follows the lives of five black people on the fictitious Ivy League college Winchester as they navigate race, love and ever-shifting personal identities. Broken into a series of blithely titled chapters, the film is billed as “a satire about being a black face in a white place.”
The film, however, is less a satire in the sense of using “wit to expose stupidity” as much as it is a mockumentary whose humor comes from its earnestness, in the vein of films like Best in Show. Perhaps this is because, as the title suggests, the work is narrowly pointed at white America. Or, more specifically, the type of liberal white America that prefaces racist statements with “I’m not racist, but…” and when challenged responds, “But my best friend is a black!” For those who already know that all black people aren’t the same (we have different names for a reason!), and that race, class and sexuality are complex parts of a greater whole, the film will have little critical edge. But for those who haven’t taken Race in America 101, the film may yet be productive.
Through a series of occasionally disjointed chapters, we are presented with a host of college archetypes: the charismatic jock played by the astonishingly beautiful Brandon Bell; the black militant played by Tessa Thompson, the pushover nerd played convincingly by Tyler Williams of Everybody Hates Chris fame, the society queen with a terrible secret (and an amazing wardrobe of pearl necklaces and backless dresses) played by Teyonah Parris, and the incorrigible dean played by Dennis Haysbert. Throughout, the film adds various layers to these one-dimensional caricatures by highlighting their “performance of blackness.”
For those who slept through critical race theory, it’s now taken for granted that there is no essential black experience. Rather, blackness is a social, political and economic construct that individuals engage with as society, the economy or our personal desires dictate. The film revels in multiplicity of identity, internal contradictions and the general sense of confusion and misidentification that characterize public discussions of race.
The viewer is constantly presented with an outward display of racial identity that is immediately undermined by an intimate moment. The jock, we learn, secretly watches sci-fi. The powerless nerd ultimately brings about the film’s climax by disrupting an “unleash your inner Negro” party and, predictably, the black militant is secretly in love with a doting if condescending older white man.
So what are we to make of the nuance and complexity Simien injects into his cast of familiar college archetypes? In more than one scene, he seems to tell us explicitly, “The role of film is to hold a mirror to society.” And on this count, Simien is most successful. The identity politics of the late 1960s and ‘70s that helped shatter the common sense understandings of biological race gave way to a more fluid conception of personal identity. And the recent victories in the campaigns for gay marriage, the growing popular acceptance of transgender people, and the expansion of gender identities on sites like Facebook suggest that ours is a society that is increasingly tolerant of difference. But focusing exclusively on issues of identity can fit neatly within a neoliberal framing which argues that “there is no such thing as society”—only individuals with their personal amalgamation of various identities.
This is reflected in sites like Angry Asian Man, Feministing and The Root, which seem to police the boundaries of rapidly evolving discourses on “privilege”, “triggers” and corporate tone-deafness. These platforms, like Dear White People, seem most interested in pointing fingers and analyzing individuals as the single (and most important) site for contestation and radical change. But demands to “check your privilege” or hire more black CEOs won’t provide meaningful solutions to the crisis of inequality.
Take, for example, a confrontation between Tessa Thompson—our budding Malcolm X—and the dean over her controversial college radio show. When told that her radio show is racist, she explains to him, as if in an Intro to Race class, that "Black people can't be racist because we don't have power." The lines are delivered with the conviction of a crusader, and it’s clear that this is supposed to be a triumphant moment in the film. The white people addressed in the title are provided a definition of racism that is immediately contradicted by the scene itself: both the oppressive Dean and the radical troublemaker are black. Viewers are left pondering, “Can a black man oppress other people?” One need only look at figures like Eric Holder, President Obama, CEO of McDonald's Don Thompson and the rest of the black power elite to recognize that the black bourgeoisie is entirely capable of oppression.
For all the nuance and layering Simien applies to his characters, they use a language that renders the world simply in black and white. A more satisfying analysis of race on college campuses would do more than reproduce well-known faux pas. A truly challenging film would interrogate the political economy that gave birth to the very category of race.
If the film’s role is to perfectly reproduce the messy realities of race on college campuses, then Simien has successfully “held a mirror to society.” But if you’re looking for a film that clarifies the nature of power and race in neoliberal society, Dear White People ain’t it.
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After the Brooklyn College administration temporarily suspended Stanley Aronowitz from school in 1950 for taking part in a protest, he dropped out to follow a much more unorthodox route to an academic career. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Aronowitz—a lifetime New Yorker in spirit even when temporarily absent—was a factory worker, union organizer, civil rights advocate, influential contributor to New Left organizations, and a vivid, often flamboyant debater in a tumultuous political period.
Since 1983, however, he has been a prolific sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, writing or editing 25 books. His latest, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement, out from Verso this fall, expands his decades-long argument that unions need bigger goals and more direct action to succeed, or even survive. Aronowitz spoke with In These Times Senior Editor David Moberg about his strategies for reviving the labor movement.
You say in your book that the labor movement has become part of the establishment. In what way?
In the 2012 presidential election, unions contributed $141 million to the Democratic Party, one of the two establishment parties. Their main strategy for moving labor forward is electoral politics, yet they have not formed a labor party. Meanwhile, they have virtually given up the strike and any kind of harsh criticism of the capitalist system.
There is almost no organized anti-capitalist political movement in the United States. Can we expect the labor movement to be anti-capitalist?
We can’t, under the current circumstances. But agitation for an anti-capitalist politics can’t wait for some kind of apocalypse. With the living standards of the American people stagnating as tremendous riches accumulate at the top, this is the time that anti-capitalist politics can resonate with the larger public. I call for another political formation linked to the labor movement, like the Trade Union Education League (the Communist organization of the 1920s), and for a party outside of the two major parties.
You criticize union contracts because they hamper direct action and channel discontent into bureaucratic grievance procedures. Is the contract itself a bad goal, or is the problem that most contracts preclude strikes and guarantee management broad power?
The big issue is the long-term contract, because that prevents workers from taking direct action as problems arise in the workplace or the economy changes. I don’t think that powerful unions need contracts. I would settle for a one-year contract that did not have the strike prohibition and did not include management prerogatives.
You write that the biggest problem the labor movement faces is not declining numbers but declining power. But don’t numbers contribute to power?
The numbers are important, especially for workers who need organizations to be able to fight their battles [with employers]. But unions in the United States do not recognize that a militant minority can have a tremendous effect if it engages in direct action—as unions do in France, and as the Service Employees [International Union] (SEIU) has done with fast-food workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has at Walmart, in conducting elective one-day strikes in several cities.
You advocate a labor movement that is “post-political.” What do you mean by that?
Post-political means that the union movement may endorse candidates or run its own, but essentially does not rely on electoral politics and public officials—that is, the state—to fulfill its goals. Instead, unions should rely on their own resources, on their own members and on their own imaginations to create conditions to make their members’ lives better, in the way that unions, especially in the early-to-mid-20th century, once established and ran very good, moderate-cost cooperative housing.
We’ve been relying for so long on politicians to solve problems that the union membership no longer really relies on its own power. The proper word is really “post-electoral” or “post-state,” and it once had a tremendous resonance among large numbers of workers.
Are electoral politics no longer important?
No, unfortunately, they still are. But I do think they have been horrendously over-emphasized at the expense of organizing and issues such as education, housing and public transportation. Unions have become supplicants of the Democratic Party and depend on the electoral system to resolve workers’ problems.
You mention Occupy as a model. But its main achievement was making common political currency out of the clash between the 99% and the 1%.
Occupy refused to be programmatic, and it has virtually disappeared. But Occupy revived the old tactics of civil disobedience and direct action. And by still relying on elections and on contracts and grievance procedures rather than engaging in direct action, unions are on the road to doom.
You write that much of the problem of the American labor movement stems from weak leaders. What led to that situation? Do conservative memberships elect conservative leaders?
I don’t think that union leadership actually reflects the views of the members. Many of these unions have become general workers’ unions. They do not organize in one specific industry. And it’s very difficult for that diverse membership to create an internal democratic opposition that can win. There is no democratic education program to expose them to new ideas and information. So members are voting for leaders to be custodians of an insurance company that provides benefits. But workers don’t really expect them to be seriously involved in their day-to-day struggles, which are often led by the shop steward system—if the shop stewards are still there—and not by the national leaders.
You see some hope in movements on the outskirts of the labor movement and strategies such as minority unionism, which the United Auto Workers pursued after its organizing loss at Volkswagen.
I was very surprised and pleased by that. The only mistake is that the UAW is not going to charge dues until they have a contract. I think workers who join unions should pay their own way.
Do you see encouraging signs in unions working with community groups on housing and banking issues, or of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently speaking out strongly on racism?
It’s a great sign, but Trumka does not have much influence over the international unions that really have the power. It will take much more than the statements by Trumka to get the labor movement to become a labor movement again. The impetus to change is going to have to come from both inside and outside of the union movement.
Some of what SEIU and UFCW have done to organize low-wage workers is very important. Unions have also reached out to many of the more than 200 worker centers, even though the amount of assistance that centers get from unions is still sparse. Also, many unions showed up at the climate change demonstration in September in New York City (though the AFL-CIO support for the Keystone pipeline is regressive). They see the need to form alliances with other social movements, as they have done with the Black Freedom Movement and the feminist movement.
You acknowledge that a major problem facing workers and the labor movement is insecurity created by globalization and new technology. What is the best way to respond to that?
Two things need to happen, or I don’t see much hope. First, there have to be actions, even if they’re inconclusive, like the fast food and Walmart demonstrations—actions that give people some sense of power and of hope. Second, inside and outside of the unions, people need to be educated about their own history and the degree to which the system is no longer working for them. And they have to begin to think about a different way of life.
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Drugs that cure patients can kill profits. So Gilead Sciences Inc. faced a fiscal challenge with its new drug, Sovaldi, which reportedly cures up to 90 percent of people with hepatitis C, a viral infection that can lurk undiagnosed and transmissible for decades until it causes liver diseases such as cirrhosis and cancer.
Unlike take-forever meds like those for high cholesterol, Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) “represents a finite cure, an important point to consider when comparing the price of a pill or bottle to the lifetime costs of treating a chronic disease,” Gilead spokesperson Cara Miller said.
Considering that point, Gilead set the price at an astounding $1,000 for each daily pill—a total of $84,000 for the minimum 12-week course. That sum would buy a Maserati SQ4 (with $10K in change) or a double-wide mobile home, or feed a thrifty family of four for 11 years. Supplementary drugs can boost the 12-week price to near $100,000. And, depending on the hep-C genotype, some patients—possibly 12 percent in the U.S. and the majority in some heavily infected, poorer countries—need 24 or 48 weeks of daily treatment.
With 180 million people worldwide infected with hep-C, including 3 million to 5 million Americans (many times the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV), we are talking a huge epidemic and a large, desperate market. Up to half a million people around the world die of hep-C each year. Sovaldi could save most of them—if they could afford it.
In addition to weighing limits to future profits, pharmaceutical companies also cite past research and development costs to justify high prices. But Gilead spends only 19 percent of its revenue on research, and in any case, sofosbuvir was developed by Pharmasset Inc. at Emory University as “the result of federally funded university-based research,” according to Science Coalition, a non-profit university research group. The drug was nearly market-ready in November 2011 when Gilead paid $11 billion cash to acquire Pharmassett, which had forecast a $36,000 price tag for the 12-week course. In December 2013, Sovaldi hit the market at well over twice that price.
The launch—the biggest ever of a new drug—put Gilead on track to reap morethan $10 billion in 2014 sales, virtually guaranteeing it will quickly recoup its investment. Meanwhile, Gilead avoided hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. taxes by transferring its patent for Sovaldi to its Irish subsidiary.
Taxpayers not only got gamed by Gilead’s tax avoidance strategy and subsidized its R&D costs, but will end up paying for much of the treatment itself. Because most U.S. hep-C sufferers are poor, in prison or aging boomers, federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid will foot much of their bills.
Most Americans caught the bloodborne virus from injection drug use or, before 1992, through unscreened transfusions or poor needle hygienein clinical settings. Hep-C can also be transmitted through high-risk sex or simply by sharing a razor blade, toothbrush, nail clipper or rolled-up $20 bill passed around to snort cocaine. About half of infected people have never been tested and, until they develop symptoms, will not know they carry—and can pass on—the virus. Without treatment, they risk slow death and high medical bills—a fact that Gilead cites when defending Sovaldi as a bargaincompared to a half-million-dollar liver transplant.
But it is one expensive bargain. U.S. annual spending on pharmaceuticals could double to $600 billion if Sovaldi is used to treat all 3 million-plus infected Americans—including the 12 percent to 35 percent of inmates who are chronically infected. Treating prisoners with standard care is a constitutionally guaranteed right and an opportunity to curtail the epidemic—but also a multibillion dollar drain on public resources.
Affordability is even more problematic for the world’s 40 low-income countries, where average daily incomes range from $1.09 to $2.82 and annual healthcare spending averages $30 per capita, compared to more than $8,000 in America. In the world’s 100 or so middle-income countries, including China and Brazil, average income spans $2.82 to $34.18 a day, and average annual per capita healthcare spending is about $250. Even if curing hep-C patients and stopping the epidemic were a priority, the price is absurdly prohibitive.
Drug companies recognize that it is not only bad PR to let the poor die while the rich buy a cure—it is also bad business. Better to sell at a steep discount than not at all, especially when rich countries subsidize the market. Enter tiered pricing, a system spawned in the 1990s by protests, outrage and lawsuits over unaffordable HIV drugs. Despite initial industry resistance, tiered pricing has worked to Big Pharma’s advantage by both blunting criticism of price gouging and boosting the bottom line.
With manufacturing costs for a 12-week course estimated at less than $136, Gilead can steeply discount Solvadi in low-income countries and still turn a large profit. In India, where 12 million people have hep-C, Gilead charges about 1 percent of the U.S. price—or $900 for the 12-week course.
Gilead is also striking discount deals with some middle-income countries—a giant market that has two-thirds of the world’s population, 75 percent of its poor, and the majority of its disease burden. In Egypt, where 10 to 13 percent of the population is infected (the world’s highest prevalence), even with a 99 percent discount, providing a 12-week course to all infected Egyptians would cost 2.5 times the country’s yearly total health spending, based on calculations by the humanitarian NGO Médecins du Monde.
In any case, tiered pricing only works (for consumers, as opposed to industry) if rich and poor countries alike implement policies that mediate price differentials among rich and poor people within their borders. Fairness also founders on the ability of countries to negotiate on behalf of the public. Caving to lobbying pressure, the Obama administration signed away the right to negotiate lower drug prices (except in the veterans’ system) in exchange for the pharmaceutical industry not killing the Affordable Care Act. That lack of bargaining power may explain why Sovaldi costs $84,000 for Americans, compared to about $70,000 for the French and $55,000 for Canadians. France has proposed taxing Sovaldi when its cost to the state exceeds $567 million.
With Sovaldi’s potential to break the U.S. healthcare bank, advocates, government and insurance companies alike are demanding more affordable prices for essential drugs. While humans can actually survive without Viagra, lifesaving drugs fall into another category entirely.“Though produced by private companies, they constitute a public good, both because they can prevent epidemics and because healthy people function better as members of society than sick ones do,” declared no less a bastion of capitalism than The Economist.
Sovaldi’s key developer concurs. “It’s a pandemic, and there is an urgent need for cheap, effective, user-friendly anti-[hep-C] oral drugs [for] the sickest and poorest people in the world,” Raymond Schinazi told Poz magazine. “We have a moral obligation to do something about it as quickly as possible.” Schinazi—whose research was supported by public funding through his affiliation with Emory and the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center—was made $440 million richer from the sale of Pharmasset.
These concerns have prompted Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to question not only how Gilead set the price, but whether Sovaldi is as safe and effective as touted. The senators cite an Oregon Health and Sciences report detailing research “factors that would lead to a bias in underrepresenting the true nature of adverse events.” The study noted “uncertainty” about whether the high cure rate could be a result of cherry picking trial subjects and data, a too-small sample size, and lack of long-term follow up. The report rated studies on Sovaldi as “poor,” the lowest category. It also found “a high risk of bias” owing to conflicts of interest and issues with study funding: 19 of the 27 members of the expert panel that developed the Sovaldi guidelines had a financial relationships with Gilead.
For my October column, I drove to Canada to save a friend a couple hundred bucks on an Epipen. If In These Times would pony up $84,000 for a first-person account (and if I had hep-C, which I somehow escaped despite a wastrel youth), I could fly to India, buy Sovaldi, cure myself, live nicely for 12 weeks, and still have enough left for that Maserati. Or, in a practice Big Pharma deplores as “leakage,” I could buy enough Sovaldi to treat 100 infected Americans.
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In December 2012, Brad Werner—a complex systems researcher with pink hair and a serious expression—made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. But it was Werner’s session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (Full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).
Standing at the front of the conference room, the University of California, San Diego professor took the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that rather direct question. He talked about a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: Global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When a journalist pressed Werner for a clear answer on the “Is earth fucked?” question, he set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”
There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner described it as “resistance”—movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.” Such mass uprisings of people—along the lines of the abolition movement and the Civil Rights Movement—represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.
This, he argued, is clear from history, which tells us that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on ... how the dominant culture evolved.” It stands to reason, therefore, that “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamic.” And that, Werner said, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem.” Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.
Social movements, such as the fossil fuel divestment/reinvestment movement, local laws barring high-risk extraction, bold court challenges by Indigenous groups and others, are early manifestations of this resistance. They have not only located various choke points to slow the expansion plans of the fossil fuel companies, but the economic alternatives these movements are proposing and building are mapping ways of living within planetary boundaries, ones based on intricate reciprocal relationships rather than brute extraction. This is the “friction” to which Werner referred, the kind that is needed to put the brakes on the forces of destruction and destabilization.
Just as many climate change deniers I met fear, making swift progress on climate change requires breaking fossilized free market rules. That is why, if we are to collectively meet the enormous challenges of this crisis, a robust social movement will need to demand (and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: longterm public planning, and saying no to powerful corporations.
There are many important debates to be had about the best way to respond to climate change—stormwalls or ecosystem restoration? Decentralized renewables, industrial scale wind power combined with natural gas, or nuclear power? Small-scale organic farms or industrial food systems? There is, however, no scenario in which we can avoid wartime levels of spending in the public sector—not if we are serious about preventing catastrophic levels of warming, and minimizing the destructive potential of the coming storms.
Public money needs to be spent on ambitious emission-reducing projects—the smart grids, the light rail, the citywide composting systems, the building retrofits, the visionary transit systems, the urban redesigns to keep us from spending half our lives in traffic jams. The private sector is ill-suited to taking on most of these large infrastructure investments. If the services are to be accessible, which they must be in order to be effective, the profit margins that attract private players simply aren’t there.The polluter pays
So how on earth are we going to pay for all this? In North America and Europe, the economic crisis that began in 2008 is still being used as a pretext to slash aid abroad and cut climate programs at home. All over Southern Europe, environmental policies and regulations have been clawed back, most tragically in Spain, which, facing fierce austerity pressure, drastically cut subsidies for renewables projects, sending solar projects and wind farms spiraling toward default and closure. The U.K. under David Cameron has also cut supports for renewable energy.
If we accept that governments are broke, and they’re not likely to introduce “quantitative easing” (aka printing money) for the climate system as they have for the banks, where is the money supposed to come from? Since we have only a few short years to dramatically lower our emissions, the only rational way forward is to fully embrace the principle already well established in Western law: the polluter pays.
Oil and gas companies remain some of the most profitable corporations in history, with the top five oil companies pulling in $900 billion in profits from 2001 to 2010. These companies are rich, quite simply, because they have dumped the cost of cleaning up their mess onto regular people around the world. It is this situation that, most fundamentally, needs to change.
And it will not change without strong action. For well over a decade, several of the oil majors have claimed to be voluntarily using their profits to invest in a shift to renewable energy. But according to a study by the Center for American Progress, just 4 percent of the Big Five’s $100 billion in combined profits in 2008 went to “renewable and alternative energy ventures.” Instead, they continue to pour their profits into shareholder pockets, outrageous ex- ecutive pay (Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson makes more than $100,000 a day), and new technologies designed to extract even dirtier and more dangerous fossil fuels. As oil industry watcher Antonia Juhasz has observed, “You wouldn’t know it from their advertising, but the world’s major oil companies have either entirely divested from alternative energy or significantly reduced their investments in favor of doubling down on ever-more risky and destructive sources of oil and natural gas.”
Given this track record, it’s safe to assume that if fossil fuel companies are going to help pay for the shift to renew- able energy, and for the broader costs of a climate destabilized by their pollution, it will be because they are forced to do so by law.
It is high time for the industry to at least split the bill for the climate crisis. And there is mounting evidence that the financial world understands that this is coming. In its 2013 annual report on “Global Risks,” the World Economic Forum (host of the annual super-elite gathering in Davos, Switzerland), stated plainly, “Although the Alaskan village of Kivalina—which faces being ‘wiped out’ by the changing climate— was unsuccessful in its attempts to file a $400 million lawsuit against oil and coal companies, future plaintiffs may be more successful.”
The question is: How do we stop fossil fuel profits from continuing to hemorrhage into executive paychecks and shareholder pockets—and how do we do it soon, before the companies are significantly less profitable or out of business because we have moved to a new energy system? A steep carbon tax would be a straightforward way to get a piece of the profits, as long as it contained a generous redistributive mechanism—a tax cut or income credit—that compensated poor and middle-class consumers for increased fuel and heating prices. As Canadian economist Marc Lee points out, designed properly, “It is possible to have a progressive carbon tax system that reduces inequality as it raises the price of emitting greenhouse gases.” An even more direct route to getting a piece of those pollution profits would be for governments to negotiate much higher royalty rates on oil, gas and coal extraction, with the revenues going to “heritage trust funds” that would be dedicated to building the post–fossil fuel future, as well as to helping communities and workers adapt to these new realities.
Fossil fuel corporations can be counted on to resist any new rules that cut into their profits, so harsh penalties, including revoking corporate charters, would need to be on the table. But the extractive industries shouldn’t be the only targets of the “polluter pays” principle. The car companies have plenty to answer for, too, as do the shipping industry and the airlines.
Moreover, there is a simple, direct correlation between wealth and emissions—more money generally means more flying, driving, boating and powering of multiple homes. One case study of German consumers indicates that the travel habits of the most affluent class have an impact on climate 250 percent greater than that of their lowest-earning neighbors.
That means any attempt to tax the extraordinary concentration of wealth at the very top of the economic pyramid would—if partially channeled into climate financing—effectively make the polluters pay. Journalist and climate and energy policy expert Gar Lipow puts it this way: “We should tax the rich more because it is the fair thing to do, and because it will provide a better life for most of us, and a more prosperous economy. However, providing money to save civilization and reduce the risk of human extinction is another good reason to bill the rich for their fair share of taxes.”
There is no shortage of options for equitably coming up with the cash to prepare for the coming storms while radically lowering our emissions to prevent catastrophic warming. Consider the following:
- A “low-rate” financial transaction tax—which would hit trades of stocks, derivatives and other financial instruments—could bring in nearly $650 billion at the global level each year, according to a 2011 resolution of the European Parliament (and it would have the added bonus of slowing down financial speculation).
- Closing tax havens would yield another windfall. The U.K.-based Tax Justice Network estimates that in 2010, the private financial wealth of individuals stowed unreported in tax havens around the globe was somewhere between $21 trillion and $32 trillion. If that money were brought into the light and its earnings taxed at a 30 percent rate, it would yield at least $190 billion in income tax revenue each year.
- A 1 percent “billionaire’s tax,” floated by the U.N., could raise $46 billion annually.
- A $50 tax per metric ton of CO2 emitted in developed countries would raise an estimated $450 billion annually, while a more modest $25 carbon tax would still yield $250 billion per year, according to a 2011 report by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), among others.
- Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies globally would conservatively save governments a total $775 billion in a single year, according to a 2012 estimate by Oil Change International and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
These various measures, taken together, would certainly raise enough for a very healthy start to finance a Great Transition (and avoid a Great Depression). Of course, for any of these tax crackdowns to work, key governments would have to coordinate their responses so that corporations had nowhere to hide—a difficult task, though far from impossible, and one frequently bandied about at G20 summits.
To state the obvious: it would be incredibly difficult to persuade governments in almost every country in the world to implement the kinds of redistributive climate mechanisms I have outlined. But we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: It is not that “we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share.Battle for the planet
Seen in this light, it’s hardly surprising that our leaders have so far failed to act to avert climate chaos. Indeed, even if aggressive “polluter pays” measures were introduced, it isn’t at all clear that the current political class would know what to do with the money. After all, changing the building blocks of our societies—the energy that powers our economies, how we move around, the designs of our major cities—is not about writing a few checks. It requires bold long-term planning at every level of government, and a willingness to stand up to polluters whose actions put us all in danger. And that won’t happen until the corporate liberation project that has shaped our political culture for three and a half decades is buried for good.
All of this is why any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. Because what is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires breaking so many rules at once—rules emerged out of the same, coherent worldview. If that worldview is delegitimized, then all of the rules within it become much weaker and more vulnerable. This is another lesson from social movement history across the political spectrum: When fundamental change does come, it’s generally not in legislative dribs and drabs spread out evenly over decades. Rather it comes in spasms of rapid-fire lawmaking, with one breakthrough after another. The Right calls this “shock therapy”; the Left calls it “populism” because it requires so much popular support and mobilization to occur.
So how do you change a worldview, an unquestioned ideology? Part of it involves choosing the right early policy battles—game-changing ones that don’t merely aim to change laws but change patterns of thought. That means that a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income. That’s not only because a minimum income, as discussed, makes it possible for workers to say no to dirty energy jobs but also because the very process of arguing for a universal social safety net opens up a space for a full-throated debate about values— about what we owe to one another based on our shared humanity, and what it is that we collectively value more than economic growth and corporate profits.
Indeed, a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. Because if we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy—the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.
Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis. A worldview embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. This is required not only to create a political context to dramatically lower emissions, but also to help us cope with the disasters we can no longer afford to avoid. Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.
This essay was adapted from This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein. Copyright © 2014 by Naomi Klein. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.