Inequality and the politics of empowerment

Inclusive Economy,Poverty & Inequality14 Jan 2013Harry C. Boyte

Bringing work and workplaces to the center of attention restores citizens to their rightful position as the agents of a democratic way of life.  In work-centered democracy attention to inequality of agency everywhere – not simply formal politics – becomes a central question.

“The world is deluged with panaceas, formulas, proposed laws, machineries, ways out, and myriads of solutions. It is significant and tragic that almost every one of these proposed plans and alleged solutions deals with the structure of society, but none concerns the substance—the people. This, despite the eternal truth of the democratic faith that the solution always lies with the people.”

-Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, 1946

Saul Alinsky, the well-known American community organizer, railed against expert-led approaches, “myriads of solutions” which neglect “the people.” Expert-led solutions are evident in The Broker’s debate on inequality, but there are exceptions. For example, the “inclusive economics” championed by heterodox economists attentive to agency, described by Evert-jan Quak in the Inequality Dossier, insists that people become “more than the ‘beneficiaries’ of growth,’” developing power “to shape growth patterns themselves and be part of the decision-making processes that promote these patterns.”

A strong form of agency is conveyed especially by the idea of citizens as co-creators of democratic societies. The concept of citizen as co-creator emphasizes sites and practices of work where people develop the identities of productive citizenship, coming to see themselves as makers of society, not simply volunteers, voters, consumers or protestors. A focus on work and workplaces draws attention to the jobs which sustain empowering local communities. It highlights the importance of work for the unemployed with public meaning, in the tradition of New Deal public work jobs programs such as the WPA and CCC, which developed civic identities among millions of poor people. It recognizes the role of trans-local networks such as professions with democratic mission.

Bringing work and workplaces to the center of attention restores citizens to their rightful position as the agents of a democratic way of life. In work-centered democracy attention to inequality of agency everywhere – not simply formal politics – becomes a central question. In moving towards a more work-centered democracy, attention should be paid to several important forms of agency:

  • Community organizing: Alinsky pioneered in an approach focused on the creative agency of the people and embodied in the idea of broad-based community organizing. In his 1946 Reveille for Radicals, Alinsky generalized lessons from the labor, farmers, and community movements in which he participated in the 1930s. The broad-based community organizing network Alinsky founded, the Industrial Areas Foundation, is highly active in the US and Britain, with fledgling efforts in France, Germany and South Africa. Such organizing has had major impact on poverty and income inequality in hundreds of low income communities. In the Mexican American barrios of San Antonio, Texas, for instance, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), organized by Alinsky protégé Ernesto Cortes, has transformed community development in the city, winning several billion dollars of infrastructure and other improvements, dramatically changing the balance of formal political power. COPS and similar groups are striking examples of a participatory and inclusive approach which develops the democratic capacities of the people. Theory and practice of civic agency over the last generation has also developed considerably. Let me highlight three themes: the politics involved; the importance of cultures of empowerment; and citizenship that emphasizes the citizen as co-creator of democratic society. I developed such arguments in a debate with neo-conservatives in Washington (see the Hudson Institute, a blog in the Huffington Post and the symposium “Reclaiming Populism,” in the The Good Society.
  • Politics: Alinsky, allergic to the ideological politics of left and right, refused to talk much about the politics he espoused. But others in his tradition have broken this silence. In the Good Society symposium, political theorist and theologian Luke Bretherton, long active in the IAF affiliate London Citizen, calls broad-based community organizing “political populism,” distinguishing it from the idealized and often demagogic version of “populism” which he describes as anti-political. Bretherton’s colleague in London Citizen and fellow political theorist Maurice Glassman has sought to generalize the politics of broad-based organizing in what he calls “Blue Labour.” Glassman was recently chosen by Labour Party head Edward Milliband as a Labour representative and intellectual in the House of Lords.
  • Local Cultures of Empowerment: The politics of empowerment espoused by Glassman champions local communities and their anchoring institutions such as small businesses, congregations, sports clubs, ethnic and neighborhood groups, and public spaces like post offices and parks . These function to strengthen empowering civic cultures. The argument that levels of civic engagement are functions of local cultures has begun to receive attention. For instance, in Great American City, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson describes the African-American Chatham community in Chicago, which has a strong culture of what he calls collective efficacy. “The specific neighborhood has a personality that affects virtually all aspects of social life,” Sampson recently told The New York Times. “Large scale forces like the recession matter, but they are moderated by local neighborhood factors, whether you’re in Chicago or Stockholm or other cities.”
  • Citizens as Co-creators – putting work at the center: Citizens as co-creators challenge even participatory theorists who follow the western philosophical tradition which contrasts civic activity with productive activity. As Benjamin Barber, author of Strong Democracy puts it, “To the Greeks, labor by itself defined only mere animal existence, while leisure was the condition for freedom, politics, and truly ‘human’ forms of being.” Similarly, Hannah Arendt viewed work as part of the apolitical world. Groups like the IAF see civic action as occurring through voluntary associations and take work and workplaces off the table.

Yet work has a way of coming back in. In John Steinbeck’s 1930s classic In Dubious Battle, a union organizer is asked what he gets from organizing farm laborers despite low pay and constant danger. “It’s an important job,” he replies. “The thing that takes the heart out of a man is work that doesn’t lead any place.” In her book, Working Together, Cynthia Estlund shows that work and workplaces create opportunities to build civic ties often missing in community and associational life.

Work-centered citizenship is the antidote to feelings of powerlessness. It holds potential to regenerate hope, and a people’s movement for agency everywhere.