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What Comes After Capitalism? Upcoming Teach-Ins Can Show a Way Forward

When the next economic crash comes, we can be ready with a clear, workable and compelling vision of how to reorganize society.

University of California, Santa Barbara students and supporters turn out for the first Million Student March. (Photo: Mathew Burciaga / The Bottom Line)

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An extraordinary process of change is about to explode this month on campuses and in communities across the United States. Thousands of Americans are coming together in dozens of locations to take on the question of what kind of system should replace capitalism. The process is called the Next System Teach-Ins.

Teach-ins to address the fundamental question of how to move beyond capitalism will be taking place on campuses as well as in community centers and correctional facilities — most between Earth Day (April 22) and May Day (May 1), following kickoff events this month at the New School and the City University of New York (CUNY) system in New York City; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The largest teach-in is planned for the University of California, Santa Barbara, between April 26 and 28. Major sessions from that campus will be live-streamed into classrooms, house parties and workplaces across the world.

The idea that capitalism as a system may be coming to an end, that something new must ultimately be created, is no longer restricted to groups on the political left. Survey after survey has found millions of Americans embracing ideas far different from business as usual. A January 2016 poll of likely Democratic caucusgoers, even in a state like Iowa, found that 43 percent described themselves as “socialist” — a higher percentage than those who self-identified as “capitalist.” Eighty-four percent of Democratic voters under the age of 30 voted for the self-described “democratic socialist” candidate Bernie Sanders, and one-third of all Sanders supporters have told pollsters they will vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in the general election if Sanders is not the Democratic Party nominee.

Nor is the understanding that the current system is not the be-all and end-all of history restricted to progressives in general. Long before anti-capitalism found mass expression in the Sanders campaign, four years ago, in 2012, Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum — the annual gathering of corporate and financial leaders in Davos, Switzerland — declared: “Capitalism in its current form no longer fits the world around us.”

When the next crash comes, will we be ready to offer a clear, workable and compelling vision of how to reorganize society?

And three years ago, the Academy of Management, an august body of 29,000 business school professors and corporate advisers, met for their annual meeting in Orlando, Florida. The theme: “Capitalism in Question.” Some of the questions: What kind of economic system would a “better world” be built upon? “Would it be a capitalist one? If so, what kind of capitalism? If not, what are the alternatives?” Economist Thomas Piketty’s book on the inequality and instability endemic to capitalism was number one on both Amazon and the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list.

But what kind of system might one day transcend the traditional 20th-century models of corporate capitalism on the one hand, and state socialism on the other? And what can those who insist that the next system produce democracy, justice, equality, ecological sustainability and a culture of community do to build understanding of the kind of political and economic system and society that we want and need?

What can we do to move forward in a positive way? How do we engage the question, both practically and theoretically? How do we move beyond abstract rhetoric? These questions at the heart of the teach-ins matter to all of us, but they are particularly urgent to those born after the 1960s.

Promotional ad for the fourth wave of Democracy Teach-Ins in the lead-up to the Seattle 1999 WTO protests. (Image: Eric Allin)Promotional ad for the fourth wave of Democracy Teach-Ins in the lead-up to the Seattle 1999 World Trade Organization protests. (Image: Eric Allin)We’ve seen that urgency expressed repeatedly over the past five years, first with the immigrant rights mobilizations, then in the Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy Wall Street, next with the climate justice movement and Black Lives Matter, and today with the powerful generational justice politics expressed in the support for Bernie Sanders among millennials and Generation X. Generational politics are increasingly class politics.

Teach-ins as a strategy for helping catalyze serious change have been part and parcel of progressive change for more than five decades. Beginning in the mid-1960s with the teach-ins on the war in Vietnam and continuing on through the 1970s and 1980s with the use of teach-ins by the environmental, women’s, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear movements, into the 1990s and 2000s with the Democracy Teach-Ins and Tent State Universities, and most recently with Occupy and Black Lives Matter, activists have periodically revived the tradition of campus teach-ins.

Teach-ins transform college and university campuses into political fora in which students, faculty and community members take collective responsibility for matters of local, national and global import. They usually involve large-scale gatherings combined with smaller, more intensive workshops. One thing that makes a teach-in different from a conference or an academic seminar is the teach-in’s focus on producing knowledge for use by participants as members of an organized, politicized campus community.

Another is the use of a “wall-to-wall” organizing approach in which every member of the community is challenged to engage in discussion and debate on the question at hand. The major waves of teach-ins of the past 50 years have gone beyond the committed choir to inspire large numbers of people to expand their sense of the necessary and the possible.

Each teach-in wave produced something powerful and new. The teach-ins on the Vietnam War greatly expanded the reach of the antiwar movement and deepened the questioning of long-held assumptions about the role of the United States in the world system. Earth Day 1970 helped launch the modern environmental movement. The teach-ins of the women’s liberation and out-of-apartheid movements transformed lives and built and expanded those movements throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

The Democracy Teach-Ins of the 1990s cohered, radicalized and mobilized the student anti-corporate and anti-sweatshop movements that fed into the 1999 shutdown of the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The national wave of teach-ins on the Wisconsin Uprising churned movements across the country in the months prior to Occupy Wall Street, which in turn inspired its own teach-ins around the world. Similarly, Black Lives Matter inspired campus teach-ins, which then fed into mobilizing for the first National Blackout Day of boycott and protest.

Though colleges and universities are hardly the only places where the challenge is intensely felt, they are critical arenas for this debate. They have been in crisis since the 1990s. And the problems confronting students and would-be students, as well as faculty and staff, are worsening most places one turns. The University of Wisconsin system has eviscerated faculty tenure, and prominent professors are fleeing the state. Chicago State University — an institution that disproportionately serves low-income students and students of color — has closed its doors for lack of state funding. Faculty and graduate student unions have been compelled to authorize strikes in the California State University and CUNY systems. And everywhere the burden of student debt, combined with precarious labor markets, has produced two generations of Americans indentured to the failings of modern capitalism.

All of this is the result of over 30 years of deep cuts in public funding for public higher education (as a proportion of overall costs), huge increases in student tuition and student debt to make up for those cuts, and the concurrent and related corporatization of university research and services. This past year’s campus mobilizations — from the Million Student March, to the mass protests in support of Black students at the University of Missouri, to the new campaign by the United States Student Association for free higher education and student debt forgiveness — show an understanding that the crisis in higher education is part of the broader systemic crisis.

The good news is that the Next System Teach-Ins are only beginning and are only one part of the important work of many hands in preparing the way for a new society. From the New Economy Coalition to the US Solidarity Economy Network to the upcoming 2017 Democracy Convention to the Black Liberation Collective, the constitutional reform efforts of Move to Amend and more, a movement for economic and political democracy is underway in the United States.

We’ve seen state socialism and know it’s not a workable alternative. We’ve experienced corporate capitalism; it has proven itself inequitable, unstable and ultimately unsustainable. Over the coming decades, and especially when the next crash comes, will we be ready to offer a clear, workable and compelling vision of how to reorganize society?

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