Tools For A New Political Economy

Creating Non-Governmental Institutions Focused on Community Engagement

(Portions excerpted from Blurts & Spasms Blog)

There have been many revolutions throughout history that I think can help us understand how to effectively counter tyranny, oppression and oligarchy. Some by way of positive example, but many more by way of negative example and warning. As recently as the Arab Spring we have both: Tunisia as a positive example, vs. pretty much everywhere else where oppressive conditions are now much worse than they were before the uprising. But in looking at Tunisia, we still see all of the same tensions and pressures that exist in the other Arab countries where the revolution has failed – in fact most Tunisians seem to feel that real progress has been slow. But what was the difference? Why haven’t things fallen apart?

Mainly this was due to a handful of Tunisian civic organizations that worked together to broker a compromise between newly elected Islamists, members of the overthrown Ben Ali regime, and other political parties. These civic organizations included the local Human Rights League and General Labor Union, UTICA (Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts), and the Order of Lawyers. In other countries, like Egypt, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, such organizations were not strong enough to counter a pervasive tendency to settle disagreements with oppressive and divisive tactics and, in the worst cases, brutal violence. Where in Tunisia the struggle for control remained embedded in democratic processes and dialogue, in these other countries the impulse to dominate and contain any opposition overflowed the bounds of civil society. (see

I think this is an incredibly important lesson for us here in the U.S. Why? Because it illustrates that non-governmental organizations can play a key role in the political process, helping mold it into constructive outcomes. Is there still government corruption in Tunisia? Sure. Is there still fear among the population about the conservative Islamist agenda? Of course. Is there a possibility that civil society in Tunisia might still devolve if the brokered compromises cannot hold? Unfortunately, yes there is. But there are also now demonstrated civic change mechanisms to allow at least some progressive improvements to inch slowly forward without completely alienating other factions.

As with the Arab Spring, the ratio of positive to negative outcomes for other uprisings around the globe has been fairly constant: perhaps 1 in 8 succeeds to create a better, more just, more stable situation for its people. Have things gotten better in South Sudan, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, Hong Kong or Venezuela after recent activism, protests and revolutions in those countries? On the contrary, in most cases they have gotten considerably worse. In other words, there is no guarantee that disrupting, undermining or even overthrowing the status quo will result in a beneficial outcome.

Perhaps you can sense where I am going with this. Basically, as I see it, if there is sufficient momentum in the U.S. to disrupt the status quo via political or other means, the 2016 presidential election could produce unsavory outcomes closely mirroring the consequences of the Arab Spring and other recent uprisings around the globe. We could, for example, end up with a deluded megalomaniac with the knowledge and attention span of a gnat commanding the most powerful military on Earth. Or we could have far-right obstructionists take complete control of Congress. We could have eight years of new pro-corporate, anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-poor Supreme Court Justices receiving lifetime appointments. We could have another economic downturn resulting from laissez-faires government policies, tax breaks for the rich, and risky investment behavior. We could have all of this.

And for what? What would that accomplish, exactly? It’s not as if only the foolish idiots voting for Trump would be punished for their stupidity and ignorance – we would all be punished for their stupidity and ignorance. And as the economic, political, civil rights, religious and other freedoms and choices consequently became fewer and harsher in the U.S. for a majority of its citizens, the right-wing neoliberal fear-peddlers could keep the flames of hatred, anger and blame burning ever-so-brightly in America. Because, just as with so many of the Arab Spring countries, the darkness and despair would all but extinguish any lingering hope.

That is, unless we can follow Tunisia’s example and strengthen our non-governmental civic institutions instead. I think that is where the tremendous energies of those who feel disappointed, disillusioned and disenfranchised in the U.S. could be focused. Instead of using a protest vote in November to rail against an unjust system, we can turn to more effective revolutionary efforts and apply our passions there. After all, that’s precisely what wealthy corporations do when they lobby Congress or use A.L.E.C. to push self-serving laws through state legislatures. For progressives, there are all sorts of organizations involved in battling the neoliberal agenda – from overturning Citizens United, to trying to pass constitutional amendments against “corporate personhood,” to environmental activism, to holding corporations accountable for malfeasance, to ensuring voting rights for the oppressed….hundreds of opportunities to engage. And again, to be clear, this is exactly how right-wing fanatics have influenced U.S. politics: by investing their time, energy and money in ultra-conservative organizations and movements over years and decades.

In other words, we should never believe that putting all of our eggs into one basket (i.e. electing Bernie Sanders or any other President) would be a sufficient solution to the systemic problems we face in America today. I think that, in many ways, this is an illustration of how our consumer mentality has corrupted the political process: instead of actively engaging the long arc of the moral universe, applying ourselves each day with diligent effort to right the wrongs of plutocracy, we want justice right now. We want a quick fix. We want a hero, a champion, who can promise the execution of a new vision without our having to participate and work hard to make that vision real. This is a hallmark of consumer society, where we are told – every day, and often every minute – that real answers can be obtained at the click of a button, and all our needs can be met with an instantaneous purchasing decision. But enduring change requires real commitment over long stretches of time…not just one vote.

Why Is Community Engagement Important?

Communities are where ready cohesion is waiting to sally forth. Whereas complex, abstract, global issues may be difficult to harness in terms of building consensus, it is relatively simple to find common ground around pressing community issues. Local housing and real estate development, local energy production, local roads, local businesses and jobs, local environmental issues, local pollution, local animal concerns, local entertainment, local grocery and retail, local banking, local crime…people already care about what is happening in their community. All that is required is a concentration of focus, a regular dialog, and demonstrated evidence that voluntary engagement will produce desirable results. Along these lines, there are established and successful methods of engaging at the community level that are integrated with Level 7 proposals. These include Community Land Trusts, Community Development Corporations, community banking,
community property shares, citizens councils, daily direct democracy, and Community Coregroups.

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