The Problem of Collective Action in the United States

Picking up from yesterday’s post, the central problem I have attempted to apprehend from so many angles has to do with political behavior — especially collective action in the context of the United States over the past 50 or so years. How and why do people act together collectively to advance or defend their common interests? How and why do people not act together for the same — or even resist collective action that would seem to benefit them?

In my estimation, social movements in the United States do not presently have anywhere close to the capacity needed to mount sustained challenges to the entrenched power structures we are up against, at least when it comes to issues for which change would threaten the current economic order (e.g. progressive taxation, public education, public health care, cutting military spending, public elections, corporate personhood, financial regulation, global warming, and so on). Thus, Occupy Wall Street has been something of a beacon of hope to many. But momentarily seizing the national narrative didn’t send the bankers and Wall Street executives packing. A far more massive movement will be needed if we are to actually challenge the formidable power of capital.

Some of my friends and comrades in Occupy Wall Street are, in my opinion, overly dismissive of many of the progressive social change organizations and institutions of the past few decades, often lumping together longstanding community organizations, labor unions, and the Democratic Party into a static and historically useless monolith. It’s almost as if some of them believe that there hasn’t been any collective agency worth mentioning in the United States in the past few decades, prior to Occupy Wall Street. It’s doubtful that anyone would argue this explicitly, but the sometimes messianic attitude has certainly rubbed some allies and potential allies the wrong way.

OWS (more accurately, parts of OWS) isn’t alone in these sorts of over-generalizations. It’s difficult to know how to celebrate limited and compromised victories. But I think it’s important that we figure out how to recognize gains, while also recognizing how far we have yet to go. Despite my conviction that progressives need to build far bigger social movements in order to accomplish the bold changes we imagine, it still behooves us to recognize the meaningful gains social movements have made over the past half-century in the United States. Notably, African Americans, women, LGBTQ people, and other disenfranchised identity groups have, through struggle, won important rights and improvements to their daily lives.

In this same time period, however, plutocrats consolidated control of the economic system and of the political structures that once at least mitigated the extreme concentrations of wealth and power that we see today. They achieved this feat in large part by riding a tidal wave of cultural backlash, harnessing the powerful emergence of organized social conservatives. This hegemonic alliance of plutocrats and predominantly white social conservatives, in a few decades time, stripped away many important checks on the power of capital. This transpired in conjunction with a dramatic fracturing of the broad American Left and a corresponding decline in the power and influence of organized labor, especially within the Democratic Party. We are now witnesses to—and many of us victims of—a financial system convulsing under the weight of its own unchecked greed. More to the point, the democratic structures we have struggled to build together over generations, imperfect as they were, have now corroded to the point where most Americans feel we have little or no voice in the big decisions that shape our lives.

Today we face mounting social and economic problems, and a formidable ecological crisis to boot. How do we begin to approach the daunting predicaments that are before us? It is my observation that many academics and analysts who approach facets of these problems, work with an unstated assumption that solutions will come from more accurate understandings of the problems. Global warming, for example, is treated as more a problem of information, facts and beliefs, than of power and economics. It is of course critical to have scientists and scholars who study and understand the details of complex problems like global warming. However, this expertise is all for naught if we are unable to comprehend that our constraints are primarily political (i.e. the problem is one of power and will). Truth, unfortunately, is not its own arbiter. Right does not equal might. Sure, it is important to continue refining our scientific understanding of global warming, but the pressing task at hand is to build a new alignment of power that can counter the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industries.

This is the central question of my inquiry: How can we build more collective agency and power? How can we build stronger collective thinking and action to solve the pressing social, economic, political, and ecological challenges of our time? What are the major constraints (structural, cultural, psychological, etc.) impeding collective action? Can we overcome or mitigate these constraints? How?

7 responses to “The Problem of Collective Action in the United States”

  1. I deeply appreciate your effort to raise this VITAL question. I think one part of this answer can be found in the way wealthy “liberal” funding institutions–like the Pew Charitable Trust and the Ford Foundation–have successfully atomized and cubby-holed progressive energy over the past 40 years. By doling out short-term, issue-specific grants to progressive organizations with narrowly defined missions, they have used their money to keep well-intentioned progressive groups divided and beholden to them to stay alive. This has created a situation on the left where NGOs compete with each other for grants instead of working together to build a broad-based, multi-issue movement. It has also watered down our politics. To please donors, many groups have eliminated any discussion of capitalism as the common source of our problems. Some are even afraid to discuss corporate power and have self-censored most discussion of direct, radical action.

    On the right you have a very different situation. The Koch brothers (and other conservative corporate donors) fund conservative front groups that promote right-wing, grassroots solidarity through open-ended, multi-issue movements like the Tea Party that can be very radical & confrontational. They work together to fashion a common narrative and push American politics and the Republican party to the right.

    So corporate wealth is used to divide, deflect and conquer the left and build a mass base for the pro-corporate, conservative agenda on the right. This is not a complete answer to the problem you pose by a long shot. But it is an issue that has been largely ignored and deserves far more attention to deal with effectively.

  2. Reblogged this on Who Plans Whom? and commented:
    The thing is that government’s only tool, force, is inherently destructive. It cannot build social progress, but it often stands in our way.

  3. What you have is a problem of the “belling the cat” type. Overthrowing the government (and of course no good can come from government, but pointing that out is hardly an underserviced market) is a problem of that type. But so are many other problems involving predators of a private sector nature. Asymmetric conflict requires gorilla tactics. Larger numbers wouldn’t hurt, though.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that your assertion that “no good can come from government” is an oversimplification. How do you square that assertion with the use of the federal government, for example, to stop white supremacists from lynching blacks in the South, (eventually) forcing schools to integrate, and so on? Yes, one could rightly point out that the federal government was waaaay late to the fight in this example — and we should definitely point out that the federal government was pressured to take this course by an exceptionally well-organized social movement that changed popular opinions and created a crisis of legitimacy for the federal governent — but still, the concrete gain of a significantly safer and more enfranchised existence for a severely oppressed constituency was eventually consolidated by wielding the federal gov’t as enforcer. 

      This very gain — in concert with gains by other oppressed identiity groups (e.g. women, LGBTQ, other racial and cultural groups) — is the foundation for the conservative cultural backlash of the past 40 years. It’s a big part of why an “anti-government” rhetoric has become so popular: because conservative political agents articulated this narrative in order to ride a wave of racist, sexist, homophobic cultural backlash. The “big government” meme was a more socially acceptable code for “states’ rights”, which was itself a code for “the right of states and locales to have slaves, to disenfranchise racial minorities, to do whatever the eff they wanted — human rights and social equity be damed.

      So, a vision of autonomy and ultimate anti-statism — which I think you’re suggesting — has to wrestle with this kind of historical reality. What’s the plan? Ceding the space of government entirely to our opponents is suicidal — more so for some people than for others, depending on features of our identities and privilege.

      More on this question of our strategic engagement in relation to the state here.

      1. Steven Pinker makes a pretty good case in Better Angels that life has gotten far less brutal and violent under the modern nation-state. Lots of good has come from government in that respect.

  4. […] of consideration in an examination of politics and political behavior. Then in The Problem of Collective Action in the United States, I briefly discussed the constraining context that has led me to study political behavior, namely […]

  5. […] The problem of collective action in the United States […]

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