The crisis today – why we need a new Poor People’s Campaign

We live in a time of profound crisis, a time where virtually everywhere, nearly all systems and institutions fundamental to society — political, economic, social and religious — at best fail to meet people’s needs and at worst cause widespread suffering. Poverty and economic insecurity are widespread with nearly 1/2 of the world’s population—more than 3 billion people—living on less than $2.50 a day, 870 million people chronically malnourished, and millions more without health care, housing, food, education, jobs that pay adequately. Climate change is wreaking havoc all over the planet, impacting the poorest and most vulnerable the most. In recent decades, we’ve also seen a steady increase in war and violent conflicts which have left millions of poor people dead, displaced, and dispossessed.

In recent decades we have seen the development of a newly globalized ruling elite and power structure. The power of global capital and the institutions that serve it have meant a globalization of the political, economic, and social systems that produce poverty today. They have also meant that crises in any of those systems have devastating world-wide effects for the poor.

The profound economic crisis we are experiencing is a result of a profound crisis of leadership in the United States and in the world today. The global economic crisis has revealed the fundamental weakness in our global economic order: although we have the technical means to produce an unheard of abundance, we continue to witness a massive expansion of poverty and deepening economic inequality. There should be no poverty when there is plenty; there should be no abandonment amidst abundance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it… Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table, when [human beings have] the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all [humankind] with the basic necessities of life?… There is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will…The time has come for an all-out war against poverty.”

Fighting back

While crisis of this scale and depth has dealt severe blows to the global struggle for human dignity and rights, it has also unleashed new and powerful possibilities for change. Since the world-wide financial crisis in 2008, mass protests in US and globally have succeeded in focusing attention on inequality and in changing the rhetoric of some politicians. However, there has been little serious discussion and even less action on plans to reduce, let alone end, poverty and soaring inequality.

Still, we are seeing growing resistance led by people who are organizing and fighting for their lives, their rights and their deepest values. We are fighting on many fronts of this struggle, including for good affordable homes, water, nutritious food, health, and education, for racial, gender and LGBTQ justice, for a humane immigration system and an end to mass incarceration, for living wages and good jobs, for a healthy environment, for peace, and for a more genuine democracy. We look to the example of the Forward Together/Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, the struggle against water shut-offs in Detroit, the campaigns in Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to make healthcare a human right, and many others which show the power that comes when we’re able to see all the problems our communities are facing as deeply inter-connected and organize on that basis.

We experience the power and joy of these campaigns, celebrating and drawing inspiration from the gains of struggles led by those most directly affected. Yet we are all also painfully aware of the limits of our victories as overall conditions continue to worsen and inequality and poverty continue to grow. There is a growing need and yearning to connect our often isolated battles and begin creating a broader and deeper social movement with the power and vision to take on not just the rotten fruits of poverty, inequality, and oppression but the national and global systems and structures that produce them. Such a movement would build on struggles now taking place, strengthening our connections to produce the unity that is the only way to move us from merely reacting to different disasters to transforming society. It was a vision of just such a transformative movement that led Dr. King to call for a Poor People’s Campaign. It is the same urgent need today that leads to the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign to abolish poverty.

The power of a movement led by the poor

The poor and dispossessed have come to embody all the major injustices of our time. This gives us the ability to provide a rallying point for an even broader and more powerful social movement. Far from putting aside the immediate problems we’re facing and struggles we’re waging, such a movement would strengthen our different struggles by recognizing them as inter-connected, inseparable and central to the fight to end poverty and create a moral and just society. The leading role of the poor in these struggles is critical to building this movement. History teaches us that successful movements’ essential first step is uniting those most affected by the problem.

History has also shown that powerful social movements require the involvement and support of all sectors with an interest in a radically different society. This means nearly everyone. A recent study measuring “economic insecurity” found that 4 of 5 people living in the U.S. live in danger of poverty or unemployment at some point in their lifetime. A key objective of building the unity and power of the poor is to help those who feel they are still in the “middle class” to realize their common interest in the fight to end poverty. This task is all the more crucial as the wealthy attempt to win the same battle by turning those who have little against those who have even less. But the scale, extent, and endurance of the economic crisis has made this long standing game harder for them to win.

The permanent crisis has raised the most serious questions about the prevailing ideological orthodoxies which for too long have defined what is “realistically” possible in terms of social change. And even those who feel economically secure can see that mass poverty and economic hardship amidst such wealth and productive power is an obscene violation our most sacred values. Part of the power of a movement led by the poor is its ability to win the middle to a project to end poverty for everyone, and away from the rhetoric of “re-building the middle class,” which doesn’t address the root causes of many of our current crises.

King understood, as we must, that we cannot abolish poverty without curing the social ills that create it, the same social ills that damage the security and well-being of people everywhere. You cannot end poverty without ending the structures of racial, gender, and class inequality. Mass incarceration is mass incarceration of poor people. Climate change endangers everyone but has its most immediate and devastating effects on the poor. Immigrants are in movement because of the conditions of poverty in their home countries, and they find the same poverty producing system at play wherever they arrive. The lack of reproductive and child rearing choices hurts all women while pushing many into poverty and making it harder to survive. The attacks on workers labor rights reduce wages while dramatically increasing the number of workers in poverty. Part of the power of a movement led by the poor is our ability to link all these fights together and begin to get at their common roots.

The unity of the poor

King knew that dividing the poor through racial, gender, and other kinds of oppression and privilege has been critical for the powerful to maintain control over the rest of us, and that the only hope for building enough power to abolish poverty is for the poor grapple with and overcome those divisions.

The divisions that have been created among us are real, deep, and long standing. Racism and sexism are not the simple outcome of class and economic oppression and exploitation. Their power and endurance depend not only on elaborate social structures but also the creation of long standing forms of thinking and behavior that are historically evolved and pervasive. These do not simply disappear with a formal commitment to equality. We must constantly confront and fight the ideologies and social structures which cause racial, gender, and other kinds of oppression.

We must also recognize and confront another side of racial oppression. It is used by those in power to keep under control the massive numbers of white people who are dealing with poverty and economic injustice. Oppression and privilege are part of the constant efforts to persuade them that whatever their suffering, their interests lie with those in power rather than with those people of color who are disproportionately impoverished but share with them the basic conditions of poverty and dispossession. As King knew and history has repeatedly shown, when the narratives which support this disunity begin to falter and the poor begin to forge unity through recognition of our common interest, the possibility of social transformation moves dramatically closer to reality. This is the power of a movement led by the poor, and this why the idea of uniting the poor was such a threat in 1967. It is why it still is.

This is true globally as well as nationally. The global character of today’s crises reveal that more than ever before, the work to abolish poverty in the United States can be won only as part of the struggle against a global order that inflicts suffering and fuels violent conflicts around the world. This means we have to build a new kind the unity between the poor in the US and the poor all over the world, on the basis of what we have in common.

What needs to be done

Developing that unity among the poor, in the US and globally, begins by learning about and listening to as many movements as possible around the country and the world, developing a shared assessment of the global problems we face, and building forms of mutual support and common action.

That means that the first step of building a new Poor People’s Campaign for today is, in turn, for interested groups to reach out to and start talking with as many others as possible: for us to learn from and about each other, build trust and a shared understanding, and refine and clarify the idea for the campaign. For this reason, we are beginning strategic dialogue by bringing organizations of the poor together to share stories and analyses, support each other’s struggles, and discuss and debate how we can build something that goes beyond our individual fights. We’re also going out to different communities across the country where the poor are fighting back. In November a delegation went to the Gulf Coast and met with groups dealing with the aftermath of hurricaine Katrina, the 2010 BP oil spill, and ongoing economic and ecological devastation. This Spring, we’re planning a delegation to Appalachia. Over the past few months, we’ve begun national organizing calls to maintain our connections to each other. Individual leaders and organizations are spreading the word about the campaign and working to understand how it can build on and strengthen the work that’s already going on. As these conversations develop so will the plans and the structures that will make the new Poor Peoples Campaign possible.

A lesson learned from history is that a campaign on the scale called for by the current crisis cannot be launched by, or belong to, a few leaders or organizations. What is needed is a movement that reflects the needs, concerns, experiences, and demands of the diverse struggles taking place in communities large and small across the country and around the globe. To build such a campaign, we need to unite. We need to strengthen our connections and sharpen our understanding of the problems we face.

The call for a Poor People’s Campaign today builds on years of community and grassroots organizing that is taking place in this country and across the world. The call draws on an assessment of what is socially and politically possible. From poor people’s struggles on all fronts there are committed and competent leaders emerging who are drawing lessons from not only the successes, but also the pitfalls of our organizing.

The call for a Poor People’s Campaign further draws on lessons from history and the social movements that have paved our way and ignited our political imagination. These movements have taught us that campaigns happen in stages. The first stage is working to build on the struggles now taking place, strengthening their connections to produce the unity that alone can move us from merely reacting to different disasters to transforming society.

This first phase – one of building connections and accessing the possibilities – is a time in which leaders of this campaign will continue to emerge. A Poor People’s Campaign for today requires leaders who are prepared to recognize our current limitations, to deepen our analysis of the forces we are up against, and to develop consciousness of the obstacles and opportunities that lie ahead. We are in the phase right now of building a non-violent army, a freedom church of the poor.

Because building this campaign is so important all this has to be done thoughtfully, carefully, and inclusively. Because it is so urgent we have to start now. And together we can and will.