Some Thoughts on Despair and Powerlessness
Recently, in an online bookclub discussion of Paul Kivel's book You Call This A Democracy, one of my students shared her personal feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, which were widely shared by many of her Environmental Advocacy and Organizing classmates in our course on Diversity and Coalition-Building. Here is a section from her posting, followed by my response:
I started off this week's readings with this book because it got me so riled up last week. But I found myself sinking into depression as I read this week. I was really looking forward to reading some ways that we could break thru the circle of power, make some changes. Instead it's just more detail about how they own and control everything. I find myself thinking that nothing we do will make a difference, so why bother trying?? Unfortunately, this is exactly what they want us to think and feel.Hi Folks,
I fully understand the anger, worry, and hopelessness that these readings might be triggering. The Kivel reading was chosen to be very challenging, to help us look at some of the deepest structural resistances to making positive change in our society, and, finally, to energize our sense of urgency about the importance of building stronger political clout through greater diversity competence and coalition-building. Looking at what we are up against is important... and realizing that it might well be a bigger obstacle than we first thought... is a sign of political maturity, I think. How can we start addressing a deep problem if we won't even face up to the fact that it exists. Knowing this material on power elite analysis thus feels hopeful to me--in the sense that it helps us move out of denial and ignorance, which is just not the best strategic place to be working from. If you think you have pneumonia, but actually have cancer, it is better to learn that you have cancer, no? Without knowing the nature of your disease, how can you formulate a cure?
Martin Luther King went through a very similar process that many of you seem to be going through now. This learning process began for King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott--his very first campaign. As he said of himself before the campaign started, "I had believed the privileged would give up their privileges on request" if he had the facts right and the moral argument on his side. However, after a failed negotiation early in the bus boycott, he "came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance." His thinking moved from a focus only on petitioning, lobbying, or even symbolic nonviolent protest towards organizing for power, training new leadership, and taking more powerful collective action through mass nonviolent non-cooperation campaigns. He was finally really starting to understand Gandhi's strategic thinking.
He also realized over the years that moving towards significant freedom often comes at a price. Certainly, the amazing demise of legal segregation and racial discrimination in this country--that only came about because of the rise and effectiveness of the civil rights movement--came at a steep price. During the King years in America, the domestic enemies of freedom and democracy attacked the civil rights movement with slander, propaganda, government spying, brutal beatings, attack dogs, fire hoses, and imprisonment, as well as with bombings and murders. While most civil rights activists were not killed, there were still several martyrs of the Freedom Struggle besides Martin, including the four little girls blown up in a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, and dozens of voter registration volunteers like Keene, New Hampshire's own Jonathan Daniels, who was an seminary student shot at point blank range while protecting a black teenage girl being threatened by an armed white racist. (By the way, she is now a human rights lawyer in DC!)
This resistance to the civil rights reforms championed by King and the civil rights movement was certainly not limited to a relatively few "cracker" southern sheriffs and Klansmen. The so-called "liberal media" often turned on King and the movement. The 1963 March on Washington, now commemorated as a peaceful and patriotic event is a good example. At the time, reporters on Meet the Press suggested "it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting." The Pentagon mustered 19,000 troops just in case. When the March was successful, several power elite centers began to panic. For example, the FBI stepped up its efforts "aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader," as one Bureau document put it a couple of months later. As it said, "We are most interested in exposing him in some manner of another in order to discredit him." In addition to planting agents in King's organization, tapping his phone, and bugging his hotel rooms, the FBI went so far as to send King disguised messages encouraging him to commit suicide. On at least one documented occasion, the FBI refused to warn King of death threats against him.
By the time that King had publicly denounced the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam in 1967, he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were placed on the FBI's list of "the most violent and radical groups and their leaders." The Bureau termed the nonviolent SCLC a "Black Nationalist Hate Group," and reaffirmed its intent to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize" King and the group. During this time, the elite, so-called liberal papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post viciously denounced him over and over again. Certainly, the obstacles to positive change came to be seen by King as far more challenging and difficult than he first imagined them in early December 1995.
King's issue analysis also deepened during this time. King initially felt that solving the racial segregation and discrimination problem for black folks would pretty much do the trick, rather than just be a first difficult step in a deeper and longer journey towards justice. As King said in 1956, "I saw further that the underlying purpose of segregation was to oppress and exploit the segregated, not simply to keep them apart." Remember Kivel's story (9-10) about how the ruling class in Jamestown carefully divided the potential coalition of women, indentured servants, slaves, and Native Americans during the 1600s. This insight is what King was slowly getting at in his own life.
As the years passed, King increasingly saw that what ails our country runs much deeper than he originally thought. Soon, he was saying things like the US government is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" and "something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States." He also began calling for a "nonviolent revolution" in this country against the "triple evils" of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation. He increasingly started seeing the need to link the civil rights, economic justice, labor, and peace movements for, as he said, "the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together." Towards the end of his life, he was even building a multi-racial coalition of the poor, called the Poor Peoples Campaign, to push a very progressive antipoverty agenda. Indeed, he frequently called--as the liberal media increasingly ignored or bad mouthed him--for "significant and profound change in American life and policy," a change that he said needed to include "a revolution of values" and "a radical redistribution of economic and political power." He even said the Vietnam War was just a symptom of a deeper malady--one rooted in America's growing economic imperialism and our government's military aggression in "defense" of corporate access to markets, cheap labor, and natural resources around the world. (For more on this, read his "Beyond Vietnam" speech from April 4, 1967.)
This is certainly not how King framed or linked issues back in the 1950s. His own experience led him to greater political maturity and insight as he left behind ignorance and denial. By engaging with Kivel's power structure analysis, we are covering--in the safety of our classrooms and training programs--what King covered in his 12 years as a frontline organizer. Hopefully, this learning won't take as long for us and we can soon start pushing to link issues and constituencies in new ways (think Power Shift and Van Jones) and then build broad and powerful coalitions even more effectively than King was able to do toward the end of his life. Social learning, learning from the past, taking time to learn a little power elite analysis theory now may well help us be that much more effective in the future. Also, remember that by looking so deeply into power elite analysis, you all are in good company. We are walking in the footsteps of Martin Luther King!
Anyway, that is my hope in asking you all to grapple with Paul Kivel's You Call This A Democracy: Who Benefits, Who Pays, and Who Really Decides? Remember, too, we are not spending the whole semester focused on the power elite and what we are up against. Soon, we will be turning our attention to coalition-building and the demonstrated power potential of well-organized, social movements. We have many significant power dynamics on our side too.
BTW, for more on the evolution of King's political thinking, consider reading Vincent Harding's short book Martin Luther King: An Inconvient Hero. (All my quotes from King here are taken from this book.)