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Reforms Are Won When Social Movements Inflict Real Costs on the Economic Elite

Victory requires disrupting the interests of capital, says Kevin A. Young, co-author of “Levers of Power.”

Protestors form a human chain during a protest, organized by Charlotte Uprising in uptown Charlotte near the site of the 2020 Republican National Convention in North Carolina on August 22, 2020.

There’s a tendency in U.S. progressive politics to focus on rehabilitating capitalism for working people. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for president had the patina of an “anti-corruption” crusade, giving a populist spin to technocratic fixes that would update the embedded liberalism of the postwar era for the twenty-first century. Think tanks and public intellectuals likewise emphasize antitrust as a means to improve the welfare of consumers and workers while giving smaller firms a better chance to succeed. Even during a global pandemic, the underlying concern is that neoliberal governance has become dysfunctional, but that it can be replaced with something akin to social democracy without losing American capitalism’s purported dynamism. This tendency is a response, in part, to the Trump administration, whose pursuit of tax cuts, corporate bailouts, and deregulation exemplifies not so much artful subterfuge but a brazen contempt for proper oversight of industry. While the progressive wing of the Democratic Party reasserts its voice, its arsenal of proposed reforms ultimately promises to mend a grossly inequitable system, not challenge it outright. The problem with the reformist approach, as Levers of Power, by Kevin A. Young, Tarun Banerjee, and Michael Schwartz, shows, is that it doesn’t admit the deeper, fundamental structure of policymaking in capitalist societies, and the intrinsic control economic elites wield over it.

With principal case studies from the Obama era, Levers of Power illustrates the degree of institutionalized policy capture within Congress, federal agencies, and the White House itself. Even in the throes of an economic emergency, elites maintain several ways to impede reform. These include capital strikes, or disinvestment; narrowly-defined cost-benefit analyses that exclude measures of public well-being; the culture of the “corporate compromise” and attendant political pressures to maintain it; and legal challenges by business to sabotage or at least curtail the reach of reforms during their implementation phase, if they manage to survive the “sausage-making” of congressional legislation. The effect is to both preclude ambitious, change-seeking insurgents from leading the Democratic Party and compel the potential reformers that do win election to greatly constrict their goals.

In an interview over email, co-author Kevin A. Young discussed the limits of electoral politics to advance a more egalitarian social contract and the strategies today’s social movements can employ to fight injustice. The challenges are formidable, especially given the Trump administration’s exercise of a new and despotic federal police power in reaction to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police violence. As Levers of Power demonstrates through examples from the labor movement and Civil Rights Movement, the path to enduring change requires mobilization that inflicts real costs on capitalists and disrupts the nexus of elite interests. This means that while progressive political allies are instrumental when it comes to implementing reform, they are never its true locus.

Justin H. Vassallo: In Levers of Power, the process of policy capture doesn’t come across the way corruption is popularly conceived. Instead, it’s depicted as a negotiated circumscription of policy choices between elites that then limits what the public believes to be politically possible. How does this differ from the relationship between the state, business, and labor during mid-twentieth century capitalism?

Kevin A. Young: The common usage of the term “corruption” is far too limited for understanding how political power operates. Rarely is the process a directly transactional one in which economic elites bribe policymakers to obtain a specific end. The more typical function of campaign contributions is to purchase access to the policymaking process – that is, a guarantee that their interests will be prioritized, and that they’ll be consulted before any policy changes are made.

My sense is that the relationship between the state, business and labor has not fundamentally changed since the mid-20th century: Even at the height of labor’s political power, business was deeply involved in policymaking discussions and the key sectors typically had to give their consent prior to major changes. There is a difference from that period, but it’s one of degree: Wealth has become even more concentrated, the floodgates have been thrown (further) open to corporate campaign donations, and labor has been greatly weakened. If the working class was sometimes able to force changes on business and government, now there are fewer countervailing forces that policymakers have to take into account.

I’ve been reading Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean and Dark Money by Jane Mayer in tandem. What distinguishes this process from the evisceration of the mixed economy and state capacity as pursued by the Koch network and other radical libertarians?

Those books are important contributions, but they can be read to imply that devious right-wing billionaires and their “stealth plan” are the primary enemies of democracy and egalitarianism – which is an oversimplification. The Koch brothers and James McGill Buchanan are truly vile, but we should understand them as only the most extreme incarnations of a far broader anti-democratic consensus among U.S. elites, including liberal politicians, investors and executives, and intellectuals. It’s useful to remember political scientist Samuel Huntington’s warning in 1975 against an “excess of democracy,” which he felt the upsurge of the 1960s and early 1970s had produced.

As we argue in the book, anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian policies are not just dependent on the preferences of individual elite leaders. There are profound structural constraints on all policymakers due to the way that our economy and state are organized. So even “maverick” politicians are subject to larger forces they can’t control. Social movements can alter that balance of forces, but in the absence of mass disruption, elite preferences usually win.

Your book builds on research that explains how inequality has worsened over the last forty years, but where it departs is in its examination of how much consultative authority business-friendly, unelected officials have. If this is a missing link when it comes to policy capture, what conditions enabled it?

The consolidation of this authority (and politicians’ deference) is a process that has compounded over time. Roughly, campaign contributions and threats of disinvestment ensure that business-friendly politicians get elected, or at least that they appoint business-friendly advisors and regulators. Those appointed personnel then help usher in institutional changes, such as the 1996 legislation signed by Clinton that expanded the use of cost-benefit analysis and gave it a more business-friendly definition. Those changes further restrict the autonomy of elected politicians and their appointees, and increase the incentive to accommodate business. The weakness of countervailing progressive forces since the 1980s has removed some of the disincentives for politicians to accommodate business.

Should a social democrat ever win the presidency in the future, what can they do differently to overcome corporate threats? Or does the globalization of capital flows ineluctably limit their options?

We need more case studies of how corporate opposition – including in the era of footloose capital – can be overcome. We argue that even a President Bernie Sanders would’ve been severely constrained, even in attempts to take executive actions that a president is legally allowed to take.

There is some wiggle room, and [it] can be increased when mass disruption of elite interests is added into the equation. As we argue, conservative elite interests have themselves ended up pressuring politicians for progressive reforms in order to avert more radical outcomes. There’s reason to believe that moments of deep crisis, like the current one, give politicians more latitude to defy corporate interests. What’s clear is that if elites are not bearing any real costs, they will ferociously oppose progressive reforms, and a social democratic president (or governor, or mayor) will have a tough time countering them.

Most ideas offered by progressive Democrats seem to spring from a political and intellectual culture that lacks real proximity to social movements. How would you characterize the dynamic between the world of reformist elites and the world of non-electoral activism? What do social movements need to do to obtain more leverage in developing and influencing policy without diluting their autonomy?

I agree that most ideas coming from liberal Democrats lack real proximity to social movements. Those voices envision solutions that are often technocratic and modest, even by the standards of the Eisenhower or Nixon eras. Some proposals from more progressive Democrats [go] somewhat further, but even [then], systemic solutions are rarely discussed. Stronger regulations on business are great, but why should private banks or corporate executives have any power to determine investments? Higher wages are great, but why should some people be consigned to a life of monotonous, unpleasant, unhealthy labor while others get to do creative and fulfilling work? Those discussions are unlikely to be broached in Washington. Labor and other movements need to do it. As for how movements can obtain more leverage, I favor engagement with electoral politics on a limited basis. Most of the policy solutions – at least the reform solutions – are out there and politicians or their staffs can find them if they bother to look. I suppose direct consultation between politicians and movements can be a good thing – for instance, if a liberal Dem solicits advice from a movement. But movements should never be fooled into thinking their power comes from access to policymakers. The fact they’re consulted at all reflects a preexisting power that the politician realizes they need to take into account.

Did Bernie Sanders’ campaigns demonstrate the limits of forging a social movement within electoral politics? Or were they part of a dialectic — channeling energies from Occupy, the Fight for 15, the teachers’ strikes, Black Lives Matter, and the immigrant rights movement — that has now fed back into local, and sometimes non-electoral, strategies for change?

I’d be interested to see studies of how activists have been mobilized: Did people get excited about Bernie, then join other movements, including non-electoral ones, because of the Bernie campaign? Or did the activists in non-electoral movements gravitate to the Bernie campaign because of their prior experience in non-electoral movements, while the people who got politicized by Bernie faded away again after his campaign ended, meaning that the long-term impact of the Bernie campaign was minimal?

I do wish Bernie had done more to encourage non-electoral organizing, but it wasn’t in the campaign’s short-term interest, since they naturally wanted people making calls and knocking on doors for the campaign. That problem is arguably inherent in electoral politics.

How do current social movements transcend the common desire for reform and press for a transformational future? The world that carceral state abolitionists and climate activists envision entails far more than a robust welfare state, crucial as that is.

The left has a crucial role to play in articulating a vision for a liberated society in all realms. It’s impossible to offer a precise blueprint but a basic vision is important, for two reasons: It can foster debate about the key principles that should govern society, and show there are realistic alternatives to our current system.

The left needs to be engaged in building unions, tenants’ councils, and other mass organizations, and fighting for reforms within the current system. The process of struggle is itself educational: collectively confronting oppressive institutions sharpens our understanding of the world and exposes the limitations of reform. Once a movement wins a reform, the inadequacy of that reform soon becomes apparent. That’s the way many people radicalize. The presence of an organized, visible left that is promoting radical analysis can help, by offering people tools for the fight. Meanwhile, the infusion of new voices can enrich the left’s own analysis, vision, and strategy. The left should also pursue what Robin Hahnel calls “experiments in equitable cooperation”: alternative institutions like worker-owned cooperatives, mutual aid networks, and restorative justice programs. The dominant institutions won’t allow these to get very big, but they still serve an educational purpose in that they demonstrate that humans can organize themselves based on values other than greed, individualism, and vengeance. Practically speaking, they prepare us for the tasks of running a future society (skills which are especially vital in moments of acute crisis like a pandemic in which the state has all but abdicated its responsibility for the general welfare).

To what extent can today’s movement against police violence reconcile civil disobedience with more overtly militant tactics, without losing the public support it’s garnered?

It would be unwise to prescribe universal guidelines. Sometimes “overtly militant” tactics are strategically advantageous to a movement, sometimes not. Riots and other property destruction sometimes produce beneficial outcomes, but they can also subject a movement to more repression. Organizers need to weigh the potential consequences. And we should bear in mind that the most “militant” actions are not always the most disruptive to dominant institutions.

Movements should pay attention to public opinion without being too obsessed with it. Most of the iconic social movement victories in U.S. history, from the abolition of slavery onward, have happened without majority support. In the case of the current movement against police terror, disrupting business interests is probably one key to confronting the police, since business can compel politicians to rein in the cops.

How can activists impose sufficient costs on capitalists to divide elites and create a pathway toward real reform, as Levers of Power’s theory of change suggests? Is it harder and more dangerous for today’s movements to replicate some of the successful strategies the book expounds upon?

We face a slew of deeply authoritarian institutions with awesome capacity for repression. They’ve gotten bigger, more militarized, and more empowered in recent decades. But all things considered, I don’t think the terrain is more daunting or dangerous than it was in past eras. From the last decades of the 19th century up until the 1940s, employers and the state murdered and maimed hundreds of striking workers, usually with impunity. Likewise in the Jim Crow South, where state-sanctioned terrorists killed, raped, and tortured thousands of people to enforce white supremacy, segregation, and labor control. Yet those movements found creative ways to cause disruption while enabling their members to withstand repression. For instance, in Birmingham they didn’t try to fight the cops in the streets – which would’ve been suicidal – but instead targeted downtown businesses with boycotts, which led the businesses to command the cops to stand down.

If prioritizing alliances within the electoral system has dubious worth, where should activists devote energy beyond disruptive strategies?

I think movements must develop our capacity to take care of each other independently of authoritarian institutions like the state and private business. That doesn’t mean we should completely ignore the state. Government has vast resources at its disposal and we should demand that those resources be used for collective welfare. Absent alternative institutions that can reach everyone, government services are often the best option available to us in the short term.

While autonomist, localist, or sectoral activities are sometimes idealized, the communities that constitute socialist hopes are stronger when they position particular struggles toward a greater project of solidarity and liberation. What should labor, climate, and racial justice movements do to elevate their international dimension?

We must avoid an overly “autonomist, localist, or sectoral” focus. There’s often an aversion among organizers to “mixing issues,” particularly in the NGO world, probably due to concerns about funding. But that phrase implies that it’s even possible to neatly compartmentalize issues, which is empirically absurd — we all have a class position, a race, a national identity, an interest in a safe and healthy environment, and so on. Those interests can’t be artificially separated.

The left should focus on building organizations that can do two things: confront predatory institutions and build alternatives. Our movements need to do both simultaneously.

Kevin A. Young is co-author, with Tarun Banerjee and Michael Schwartz, of Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It.