Overcoming Social Fragmentation – CounterPunch.org

Overcoming Social Fragmentation – CounterPunch.org

Fragmentation is a particular curse of the modern world. We live in a confusing array of systems and networks, groupings and cultures. In market society we are constantly being sold something or other. The grabs for our attention and focus are seemingly infinite. There is not much to bring us together as a people, especially around concepts of how we can create a better society.

There seems to be a design to this. The very idea that we can create a better society is a challenge to business as usual. Since the 1980s we have been living with the neoliberal ideas that the market rules, there is no alternative, and, as the neoliberal icon and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.

Of course, there are many people and groups working on aspects of what would make a better society. Nonprofit advocacy organizations, progressive businesses that have moved beyond pure bottom line considerations, labor unions, caring individuals and others are all promoting pieces of the puzzle. But we have nothing to put together the big picture, or to muster the collective power that comes from unity around a shared vision. We have no institutional framework to create and promote a sense of the common good.

It is the place of a movement of movements, to move beyond single-issue politics, to pull together the various aspirations for a better society into an understandable, coherent whole, and to join forces to make our aspirations a reality make. Here I offer some initial thoughts on how to make that happen, based on many years of progressive activist experience, including work in coalition building.

The power of a common vision

Building broader alignments takes time and resources. In fields that work for change, this is generally limited. So for people to spend time on the project, they need to see it as providing additional value to the causes they are focused on. They need to see how a broader alignment can indeed provide victories.

There is an additional hurdle, and this is perhaps the biggest. Anyone who has participated in activist politics for any length of time knows what a turf battle is. They can be vicious. Leaders of advocacy groups want to protect their place in their issue arena and often view new entrants with suspicion. They may also worry that the focus on their issue will be spread in a larger format.

For these reasons, the seeds of a movement of movements must be planted by people who see value in a broader alignment, and can look beyond their own institutional boundaries and single issues to build a larger vision of the common good.

The most compelling reason to participate in building such a movement is the power of such a vision – By creating a framework through which we can ask ourselves what we want this place to look like in 10, 20 and 50 years into the future, and a consensus and plan of action to realize that shared vision. This is why I think a movement of movements needs to be built from the ground up, with local alignments forming the cellular units of larger confederations created at state/provincial, bioregional and national levels.

It is much more feasible to build a vision for the future in place, because place is what we can grasp. It shapes our immediate experience, including our sense of where things go wrong. The homeless camp under the bridge, the traffic jam and smoggy air, the police shooting, the wage and wealth gap. We cannot solve all these problems on our own in the places where we live. But we can begin to make a dent, and gather consensus for action at larger levels. There is a special power in coming together as people, to say this is our vision for our place and we come together to make it happen.

This suggests an additional approach that I think is crucial. Many of us envision a transformed society that looks completely different from the one we have today, with a different base of economy and infrastructure. But the place to start after any change is to discern what isn’t working today. Often this is because we do not have the institutional frameworks that will meet needs. So much of what a movement of movements needs to do is to identify new institutions that need to be created. For example:

+ Public social housing agencies to provide the affordable housing that the private market does not.

+ Public banks to finance social and energy transition that for-profit banks will not.

+ Single-payer health insurance provided at the state and regional levels, potentially preparing for a national system.

+ Community food systems that simultaneously eliminate food waste and insecurity.

The public meeting

A key institutional element in the movement of movements itself is participatory democracy exercised through a public assembly. It may be called a community congress or community meeting. Extinction Rebellion uses the term people’s assembly. Ecological philosopher Murray Bookchin has written extensively on the importance of such congregations in building authority and legitimacy for democratic will. An assembly is the new public square, the new town meeting. There is a rich literature from Bookchin and others on community gatherings that I will delve into in future posts.

A meeting is the place where a common vision is agreed upon. But for a meeting to produce more than a wish list, it also needs to agree on a structure and plan to carry it forward. As I wrote in my previous piece, the failure to create such structures has left previous wide-ranging initiatives such as the World Social Forum primarily talk festivals. But here is where it gets tricky. Structure implies a level of authority and accountability, as well as shared resources. There must be some agreement between the participants to be accountable and perform necessary tasks.

Single issue orientation must succeed, but there must still be the ability to focus on specific areas. This is why a meeting and follow-up infrastructure should create groups that provide that focus, such as housing, transportation, climate, health care, criminal justice, etc. Groups currently active in those areas can provide leadership roles, allaying some of the concerns. over turf. Importantly, and to add value beyond single issue groupings, connective tissue can be created where issues intersect. For example, it is impossible to consider transport and housing separately. These are intimately connected areas.

In general, groups that participate in the movement of movements, while still primarily focused on their issue area, will commit to educating their members and constituencies about the whole vision, and how their particular issue fits in. When there is a need for public comment or mobilization, all participants agree to reach out and help where they can.

There are practical reasons why we have not seen a movement of movements emerge as an enduring mass reality, some cited above. This requires a lot of work and some breaking down of institutional boundaries. One must add, given the history of intelligence agency dirty tricks like the FBI’s Cointelpro, a movement that threatens to be effective will be subject to disruption. There are many obstacles.

But we have to overcome those obstacles. We have an overwhelming need to return to a sense of the common good, and to build unity of purpose and action around its creation. For that, we need to build the institutional structures through which we can come together to do this. That place is missing today. A movement of movements is what we need to fill that gap. These are only initial thoughts, which I hope will spur a dialogue on this important topic.

This first appeared on The Raven.

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