“A New Social Contract” Re-envisions an Inclusive Democracy

Today we bring you a conversation with Cathy Albisa, executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). Albisa discusses NESRI’s new report, which puts forward alternatives to our current dystopian political landscape, and emphasizes the need for solutions to be inclusive and intersectional.

Sarah Jaffe: We are here to talk about a new initiative from NESRI and from several partners. Why don’t you start off by telling us about this new project that you are launching and where it is going?

Cathy Albisa: The project is called “A New Social Contract.” We just published a report called “A New Social Contract: Collective Solutions Built by and for Communities.” The purpose is to drive dialogue and create a national conversation about, “What is the alternative that we want to see for a different future?” We know that the current system isn’t working for anyone and the middle is collapsing…. We need to be innovative, to really step into what is an incredibly unstable moment and try to offer solutions that are … grounded, but also high-bar and ambitious so that we move past what is a very dystopian political landscape that we are all currently suffering under.

It’s a really important thing to be doing in this particular moment in time … to say that we should be forward-looking and we should be thinking about what a system that works for people might look like. Tell us a little bit about the process that went into thinking about and putting together this project?

Just to emphasize, we want to be looking forward because we all know that what is currently happening isn’t sustainable. We have to build readiness…. We need to build an opposition, not just a resistance. The process is one where we thought it was important that anything that we shared, to engage and reflect and talk to people about, would be grounded in real lived experience. The report, and the project is really focused on solutions that communities have been advancing or modeling or promoting now for decades, if not longer.

The current problems didn’t appear overnight. They had been building up and solutions have emerged from communities that have been essentially on the front lines of injustice. They have had no choice but to figure out how to address their own needs, and in addressing their own needs, they have really come up with helpful alternatives that would be better for everyone.

In doing that, you get different communities that are coming up with different solutions to often very different problems, depending on where they are. Can you talk a little bit about stitching together these different solutions into something that looks like a broader vision for a new social contract?

The first thing we wanted to do was make sure we were looking at things that were truly structural, that would address the various intersections of injustice that people were experiencing today. Structural solutions will deal with economic, racial, gender [and] climate justice all at once because they are looking at the root cause and these root causes are integrated. Once we looked at those structural solutions, we did see certain things that they had in common.

The first one should be no surprise to anyone, which is that they are driven by values. Too much in our economic and social policy is driven by profit, driven by hate, driven by things that we would consider completely anathema to our values. These solutions … are driven by core social justice and human rights values.

The second thing we noticed about them is what I mentioned earlier. They really are better for everyone. They center people that are most marginalized, but they are systemic solutions that, if we really scaled up, would really lead to universal systems that addressed people’s basic needs and offered opportunities for neighborhoods not to just survive, but thrive all over the country.

The third is that almost all of them had a really central component that involved re-envisioning local democracy. It is no secret that our democracy is in peril right now. We have been downgraded by The Economist from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” Even before this election, a report was coming out of Princeton, hardly a radical institution, that deemed that we were no longer a democracy, but really more of an oligarchy. It is clear that communities are feeling this and that they are coming up with new forms of local democracy, community control, worker ownership to rebuild that sense of collectivity from the ground up.

Let’s talk about some of the specifics, then, that are coming from these different communities. Give us some examples of what people are thinking about and how people are thinking about scaling them?

What we found fit into roughly five categories, with multiple strategies in each of them. The first category that we looked at was what happens with our public dollars. How do we raise them and how do we spend them? And how do they meet or fail to meet our basic needs? In that part of the report, we look at public goods, we focus on examples like the universal health care movement. You see state-based efforts in almost every state right now, and the commonality in these efforts to build public services and goods like access to health care is that they are premised on a much deeper form of income and risk solidarity than we currently have in our … system.

They are also efforts intended to move us from what are a set of fragmented systems that are tiered — mortgages for the middle class and public housing for poor people that becomes politically vulnerable and then degraded. It is an example of a two-tiered kind of approach. It moves us from … the truly universal systems that serve everyone. There are increasing calls for things like Universal Basic Income and universal child care. That, obviously, has to be paired with a very different kind of revenue strategy.

The other thing we hear are these increasing calls from movements for tax justice. Not only the obvious sort of progressive taxation that we need so that we are not moving wealth upwards … but also that we tax differently, that we tax “bads,” not “goods.” If speculation is what is really destroying our economy and the well-being of our country, why aren’t we taxing more speculation?

There are examples … Baltimore has an effort to tax house-flipping at a higher level. It turns out that in Baltimore, out of 22,000 home purchases, 16,000 are not by homeowners to other homeowners. They are for-profit entities trying to flip those houses eventually. So why aren’t we taxing that sort of thing at a higher level? In that particular locality, taxing speculation at even 1 percent more of what they call a “transfer tax” would give $6 million a year for affordable housing, for example….

The second category we looked at was our relationship to land and housing. That is also currently very speculative. We were looking at things like community land trusts. There are 200 of them around the country. They were virtually immune from the foreclosure crisis. This is a model where a community organization owns the land, but the families and individuals could buy the homes on that land, and when they are re-sold, because the equity is shared, they are sold at the same level that a family of the same income could afford coming in…. Community-controlled clean energy is another example of how we could use our land and resources in a different way that is both community-controlled and healthier for everyone.

The next category was labor. No one needs to be told that our labor system is in crisis, that our job situation is untenable. We looked at things like, “Why aren’t we growing worker co-ops?” In northern Italy, two out of three workers, for example, work for a co-op. It is a very scalable solution if you invest in it. We also looked at the calls that have come out of movements now for multiple decades for a federal jobs guarantee. We currently have a system where we set monetary policy to create unemployment at a certain percentage. We intentionally create at least 4 percent unemployment. That is millions of people. And then we tell those people they are no good because they are not working and we don’t report them.

If we claim that jobs are an essential way to live a decent life, then we have to offer jobs for all. It would be less expensive to do that than what we spend, let’s say, on our military. You have to ask yourself what really is going to bring a greater sense of public good for people … between those two choices. Economists have determined that it is actually within our reach to do that.

The third thing we have looked at is enforcement of basic labor rights. Enforcement right now is a lawless environment. You cannot enforce rights in low-wage workplaces almost anywhere in the country, but workers have come up with their own solutions, either through what is remaining of union contracts, but also, there is a revolutionary new approach that we call … “worker-driven social responsibility,” where worker groups have actually been entering into agreements with buyers at the top of corporate supply chains in order to insist on protection of the rights of workers at the bottoms of supply chains. So much of our economy is now about these corporate supply chains that sort of squeeze low-wage workers at the bottom, and you can look at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ fair food program as a prime example of that model. It is being replicated in the dairy industry in Vermont and explored by workers not only here in the United States, but around the world. That is a model where workers actually run their own enforcement programs, so it really deepens workplace democracy.

The other area that we looked at was how financing flows…. Money is being extracted from localities and moved to centers of wealth and taken out of the places that it needs to be in order to meet basic needs. But we could have things like public banking. North Dakota has had [a public bank] for 100 years, and when you have a public bank, your public money is held in that public bank and reinvested in the community. You could have things like postal banking for the millions of families that actually don’t have access to the banking system, and that is why we have predatory payday loans and other problems like that. Many countries in the world already have different forms of postal banking, and it used to exist here in the United States many decades ago, so we know it is possible.

There are ways to transform private finance so it is not about moving money just to make money rather than meeting the needs of people, and there are models in the report, as well, in community investment funds and other alternatives.

Finally, the last section was on “How do we very directly engage the need to rebuild democracy?” That really focuses on, first, the essential task of decriminalizing, because so long [as] so many people are criminalized, they cannot participate as full members of society — whether that criminalization is formal, through incarceration, or whether it is pushing people out of schools and social services and public spaces because they are targeted for punitive actions by the state. So, we have to fully decriminalize, and what communities have been doing is putting forth restorative justice as the alternative, which is a model of rebuilding and repairing relationships rather than moving immediately into a punitive form of action every time a conflict or disagreement over problems comes up. That is something that has been a very big movement in our schools to end the school-to-prison pipeline, as an example.

Finally, once we decriminalize, we have to bring people into government and into government decision-making. The case study we lift up is the participatory budgeting that people around the country have been doing. You look at places like Jackson, Mississippi, for example. They are trying to do bold participatory and human rights budgeting. This is a model that has been tested for years in Brazil, where people actually participate in how their public money is spent in order to make sure that it is equitable and that everyone’s needs are met.

It is interesting when you start to think about them all in that kind of a very short summary. You do hear the same sort of structures happening again and again. It is: “How do we democratize ownership over things? How do we distribute power among more people and things like that?” Right?

Right. How do we democratize? How do we do it in a way that is equitable and inclusive? We know democracy can go off the rails. It is not as if democracy by itself is the magic bullet. Again, we don’t want mob rule. We want inclusive democracy that makes space for everyone to participate and have agency and power. That is where you really think about the role of rights. The role of universal systems to make sure everyone is included and you are not marginalizing people. It is important that we get our vision of democracy right as we try to move past this crisis.

In talking about this stuff, NESRI uses the phrase “targeted universalism.” There have been a lot of bad binary debates, [such as], “Do we talk about racism or do we talk about the economy?” and the way that you think through this is useful in trying to parse that often-frustrating argument.

I think the answer has to be, “Well, you can’t talk about the economy without talking about race.” Just like you can’t talk about the economy without talking about gender or climate. These are all things that shape, drive and challenge … our economic structures.

The question is, “What is the vision and what is the solution?” It has to be a solution for everyone. This concept of targeted universalism, different people define it slightly differently, but the way we are using it is we have the capacity to create systems that are universal and the systems that are universal or near universal have been the ones that have had the most political buy-in and have worked best. If you look at other countries, universal health care systems have certainly worked much better than our fragmented system where half of all public dollars go to health care, but somehow it is still being sucked up primarily by the private market. You look at Social Security in this country, it is a very popular program. It is consistently under attack, but it is a very popular program because it is near universal; everybody has a stake.

But you have to create those systems in a way that center people that have been most marginalized. Otherwise, you are not going to achieve true universality. To achieve true universality, you have to talk about race, you have to talk about gender, you have to talk about disability, you have to talk about people that are facing particular historical oppressions, challenges or needs. Otherwise, you fail in creating a truly universal system. That is really the idea behind targeted universalism. How do we think about a system that serves everyone by starting with people that are facing the greatest marginalization right now?

Moving forward from here, what are the next steps? What are people doing around these projects? A lot of this is coming from work people are already doing on the ground, but how are people linking up and thinking about moving this toward the next level?

This work is already happening. I think the project’s purpose is about echoing it and recognizing it and getting it embraced and adopted in different spaces. We have some very interesting debates right now and new candidates in the electoral space. They should be talking about what communities are doing. They should be embracing it as their political agenda as we have more and more progressive candidates going into the pipeline.

We have media covering almost obsessively the horrors that are happening daily, coming from the federal level, but also from the local level as white supremacists and others are emboldened to say and do things that they weren’t doing previous to this administration. But we need to get the media to also start talking about, “What do people want? What are the alternatives? How do we get the dialogue happening?”

And, we need to try to … connect our movements and understand that all our efforts are, in fact, interrelated…. We need to create a larger conversation to change our collective assumption about what is possible, because only then will we create the political conditions for a larger shift. We feel like it is important that everyone, to the extent possible, contribute to that, because this is a unique historical moment that requires that kind of stepping up.

I will put in a plug for — in September, there is going to be a march for Black women here in New York and there will be many sister marches. That is being organized by Black Women’s Blueprint. They will be talking about a new social contract for Black women. We will be doing a few things together. We will be doing ongoing events at The New School. We did our launch there and looking at specific arenas like labor or … land. They will all be livestreamed and we will be creating new tools and products to share and [we are] looking for people like you to continue this conversation so that we all define this together. One report does not define a new social contract, but it is about pushing that dialogue in conversation so that we are all engaging with it and find a bigger operational kind of vision that we can, in many ways, push forward from wherever we sit.

Where can people find the report and keep up with you?

Our website is www.NESRI.org. You can find the report there and sign up on the listserv and we will be thrilled to keep everyone updated on what is happening next.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.