toward a new economic reality

Last month, Detroit hosted 15,000 activists at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum. I had hoped to make it but couldn’t, and have been eagerly reading reports from various attendees over the last couple weeks. Two accounts of the forum that have caught my attention deal with the most essential questions of change: How do we achieve societal transformation, and what does this look like from an economic standpoint?

In the recent Resource Generation Blog post, “Learning From History: Freedom Summer, Current Summer,” Jessie Spector reflects on the successes and struggles of the Freedom Summer of 1964, and wonders what successes await today’s progressive movement, and what struggles continue to stand in our way.

The summer of 1964 saw thousands of (mostly White, northeastern) college kids volunteer with the (mostly Black, southern) SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. While the SNCC had been on the “frontlines” of the Civil Rights Movement for some time, the volunteers were (as volunteers often are) removed from the immediacy of the work, both geographically and psychologically. 

Spector observes:

“They [the volunteers] hadn’t seen any of this first hand. It was a learning experience about ‘the way things really were,’ and it radically changed the direction of most of their lives. Which is great, as experiential learning often is. And it’s problematic and frustrating, as privileged people entering the spaces of those directly-affected often is. I hadn’t realized before how privileged the Freedom Summer volunteers were. Moreover, I hadn’t realized how explicit and strategic (or necessary, out of financial restrictions) it was to recruit this particular demographic.”

Tensions ensued. With the volunteers often acting self-righteous and paternalistic. “And yet, they did it,” notes Spector. “In all the mess and dynamics and problems, they continued to … organize for transformation.”

For activists coming of age around the turn of the twenty-first century, The Sixties can be a difficult legacy to live up to. So much change. So much legend. So much struggle and success.

How does one work toward a vision of tomorrow while being engaged in a movement today?

The possible ideas are many, as are the areas of societal need. In the economic realm, one alternative is articulated by Nancy Fulbre.

A professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Fulbre has dedicated her career to answering the question, why do we need another system of economics? In her recent Economix blog piece for the New York Times, she answers that question, noting “conventional economics … plays a role, reinforcing cynical views of human nature and discouraging efforts to develop cooperative enterprises.”

“Textbook economics,” she states, “treats individuals as selfish optimizers, unconcerned about the welfare of others.”

But this particular dynamic is not always the case, despite the dismissive tone employed by pundits of traditional economics. Studies are just beginning to consider the market in relation to altruism, reciprocity, consumer cooperatives, and worker collectives.

In her research of an alternative view of economics, Fulbre “focuses on the interface between feminist theory and political economy, with a particular focus on the work of caring for others.”

It is an interesting notion: rather than the implicit competition that renders our current economic system ultimately unsustainable, there could exist, in its place, a market that values cooperation, collectivism, and altruism.

The question, as it was during The Sixties, is how do we achieve such a societal reality?

“How do we … realize that no one has ever done it perfectly,” wonders Spector, “and that we should not, we can not, act as if we have the luxury of time … before we take any risks on implementing things.”

Time can be a comforting notion. But, it can also put us to sleep. As Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Like the 15,000 individuals that attended this summer’s U.S. Social Forum. And the hundreds of thousands that didn’t.

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Filed under Activism, Economic Justice, Social Change

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