When a supermajority of Americans unite and act forcefully, they persuade elected officials to respect the will of the people. But unified action rarely happens. Fragmentation and passivity allow the rich and powerful to get what they want.
If ten people stand by and watch a strong individual beat up a weaker individual, who’s responsible? Is it correct to place total blame on the abuser? Society may later hold the abuser accountable, punish him, demand compensation, or seek reconciliation. But those ten onlookers share responsibility.
Many progressives blame the “plutocracy,” “ruling class,” or “governing elite” — though there’s little agreement about who belongs to that group, how they make decisions, or even what to call them.
With this approach, progressives attack symptoms, not the root cause, the underlying social system. They diminish the collective responsibility of the American people, including their own role in helping to perpetuate “the System.”
When progressives talk about the system, they usually talk about political and economic institutions. But the System is more complex than that. It consists of all of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals, who reinforce the System in our daily lives. All of those elements strengthen each other and are integrated into a self-perpetuating social system.
The top-level administrators of the System, the wealthy elite, hold great power and often abuse their power. The American people should hold abusers accountable, stop the abuse, and remove them from their positions.
However, we should also restructure the institutions in which they operate. We should transform the System. To do that we need to understand what we’re up against.
The System relies on the “mobility escalator.” It teaches people to climb one social ladder or another, envy or resent those who are higher, and dominate and look down on those below. Personal identity, self-worth, and meaning are based on the role people play, their relative status. To get ahead of others is key.
Even progressives who want to help the less fortunate get sucked into the same game. Paternalism, assumptions of superiority, and condescension undermine peer-based mutual support and serve to divide-and-conquer. Most efforts to help individuals cope undermine prospects for preventing damage.
Imagine 100 people at a picnic near a fast-flowing river. Many babies float down the river and eventually drown. Thirty picnickers jump into the river and rescue some of the babies, but aren’t able to save all of them. Even if everyone tried to help, most of the babies would still drown. The picnickers learn that a monster upstream is throwing the babies into the river. One picnicker goes upstream to try to stop the monster. But she’s unsuccessful. If only one other picnicker joined in that effort, they could overcome the monster. But those who want to help can’t agree on how to organize the attack.
That’s the situation today. If five million Americans, two percent of the voting-age population, united to consistently push Congress to enact laws backed by 70% of the population including a majority of Republicans, we could steadily make improvements in national policy. We could, for example, limit the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns.
To achieve that goal, we could demand that major corporations support the measure and boycott them, one by one, until they do. We could demand that local elected officials support it. We could conduct nonviolent civil disobedience until those corporations and officials get on board. We could hold the largest ever rally in Washington, DC. We could support candidates in Republican and Democratic primaries who pledge, as a top priority, to back compassionate measures supported by majorities of those who identify with the other party.
But to build powerful grassroots unity, progressive activists must acknowledge they are part of the problem. They must examine themselves and see the ways they fail to collaborate when collaboration is possible. They must stop scapegoating “enemies” and face reality.
The System is us. We are all victims. The 1% need spiritual liberation. We all need liberation. Let’s keep our superficial identities in perspective and help each other activate our deep-seated identity as a member of the human family. Let’s create a fair society that helps transform the world into a compassionate community dedicated to the common good of all humanity, the environment, and life itself. The 99% for the 100%.