Labor and the Solidarity Economic perspective

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Stephen Lerner is a creative strategist and organizer for the Labor movement. He wrote an important piece in the New Labor Forum just before the Occupy Movement took off, A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment . He followed this up with an interview with Sara Jaffe on Truthout. Anyone committed or even interested in the Solidarity Economic movement in the US would gain a lot from reading them.

Lerner gives us two things in this article and the interview following it:

  1. an excellent and realistic vision on how labor can partner with Occupy and social justice advocates in building a broad-based movement,
  2. an understanding of the reality constraints on Labor in such a project, how it has to re-think its traditional strategies, and
  3. how those of us outside Labor need to tailor our expectations to the context Labor has to work from.

However he misses a big, big piece: there isn’t going to be any kind of substantial change unless we reweave politics with economics.  Like so many on the Left Lerner thinks within this Progressive frame which Gar Alperovitz aptly summarized:

At the center of the traditional progressive theory is the hope that the political and economic power of the large corporation can be contained economically and politically through political mobilization, aided, abetted and bolstered by the organizational and financial power of labor unions.” [1]

Since the late 19th century the core strategy of the '1%' was to drum a major narrative into the American culture: economics is a thing unto itself and politics should stay in its own corral. The hegemonic focus of the Left throughout the 20th century has been on political mobilization for jobs,rights, and justice, hardly ever on changing the given economic system from the ground up.

This 20th century strategy has failed. That is why we can now talk about there being a ‘99%’ and that can resonate with many, many people. We need to move out of the traditional Progressive framework. We now have to challenge our imaginations with the kinds of questions Maria Armoudian and Gar have raised but Lerner has not:

  • What would happen if the so-called 99 percent ignored the 1 percent and began to build a new economic model from the ground floor up?  
  • What if masses of people stopped trying to reform an increasingly unworkable system and instead focused on constructing an economy of shared institutions that were fundamentally fair, just, respectful and sustainable? [2]

The Solidarity Economic perspective is very clear regarding these questions: We have to change the game, not simply the rules of the game.

[1] From his Introduction to the 2nd edition of America Beyond Capitalism

[2] See her Truthout review of Gar’s book.

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