As progressives, we have a huge job in front of us in the fight for economic justice. But our leaders are trying to do their work with one hand tied behind their backs. The better ones may often do quite well fighting with one hand; many cannot. The problem and solution are more obvious than they think: People become active in social-change movements because these movements speak to deep longings for meaning, recognition, relationship, and agency, as well as for economic survival and justice.
The civil rights movement demanded basic economic and political equality. But it also spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. The institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, grew and thrived on its power to provide meaning and recognition in dozens of way to its members. It provided meaning, in part, through the intense spirituality of its congregations, but also because it was wedded to a vision of social justice; recognition was afforded through the extensive social life in and around church life. The four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 were on their way to give a performance, one of the many public ways that the church honored and recognized people in its community. [...]The power of human needs that go beyond the material would seem obvious. But progressive organizations instinctively and implicitly operate according to a “common sense” notion—one supported by researchers like Abraham Maslow, famous for his hierarchy or pyramid of human needs—that physical survival precedes those nonmaterial needs. This logic is simple: Without satisfying the basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, people can't effectively address and gratify “higher” emotional, social, and spiritual needs. The strategic result is that we count on economic grievances and bread-and-butter issues like wages and benefits alone to move people to action.
But the compelling noneconomic needs for recognition, meaning, relationships, and agency can be sources of motivation every bit as powerful as survival needs. We see evidence of this every day. A terrorist commits suicide for the sake of Allah. An Indian demonstrator at a salt mine walks directly into the violent batons of the British Army in nonviolent resistance for the cause of independence; an African-American marcher sits down in front of Bull Connor’s dogs. A marine risks his life for his buddy; a parent does the same for a child.
Everyone wants to earn money. But a great deal of research shows that people value meaning, connection, recognition, and agency as much as a bigger paycheck, and sometimes more. Many activists we’ve worked with in progressive organizations routinely give up higher-paying jobs in the private sector to work for social change. Even a lot of money can’t always cure the deficit of other unmet needs. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is currently worth $13 billion. Yet his autobiography prominently features his bitterness about being exploited by co-founder Bill Gates. Thirteen billion dollars did not make him feel good enough about the emotional conditions of his work. [...]
Blindness to these obvious needs is an important reason why the progressive movement is struggling today. So while the Left decries economic injustice and tries to organize campaigns against it, the response from the victims of injustice can be tepid. The Left helplessly watches as conservative megachurches, the evangelical movement, and the Tea Party draw people to communities that support a political and economic system that we see as inimical to their needs for material security. The reasons, though, have little to do with anyone’s economic bottom line: These organizations and movements appear to address multiple levels of suffering and multiple needs. [...]
1. People become active in social-change movements because these movements speak to deep longings for meaning, recognition, relationship, and agency.
2. The common-sense notion that we need to satisfy people’s material needs before we can speak to their psychological, social, and spiritual needs is wrong.
3. Both the private sector and the Right are better than progressives in speaking to people’s noneconomic needs.
4. Feelings matter more than facts.
Blast from the Past. At Daily Kos on this date in 2009—How Freedom Was Lost:
On Halloween night, 1948, a fog rolled in to blanket the town of Donora, Pennsylvania. What came from that cloud wasn't the ghosts of vengeful pirates, or horror movie zombies. It was worse.
This wasn't the first time the industrial town of 13,000 had been socked in by a brown, pollution tinged smog. But this time the air had a peculiar, acrid smell. Those who breathed the fog felt as if they were breathing fire. It scorched their eyes, their throat, their lungs. Still, Donora was a mill town. Workers squinted against the bitter air and went on to their jobs. That night, as people were walking back to their houses, some of them began to die.
Soon doctors' offices were overrun and the hospital was filled with the sick and the dying. The fog held on the next day. And the next. A local hotel was pressed into service as an extension to the hospital, with volunteers serving as nurses. As bodies piled up at local funeral homes, the ground floor of that hotel became a makeshift morgue. Within five days, twenty people had died. Hundreds more were seriously injured with damage that would shorten their lives or affect their ability to work. A decade later, local papers still told the story of lives cut short.
The villain in Donora was the a toxic stew spit out by a local zinc refinery. It wasn't the first time the plant's fumes had turned the air around the town toxic, but this time a temperature inversion capped the smog. In the midst of the crisis, suspicion about the cause brought town officials to the zinc works, where they asked that the plant's operations be reduced until the weather changed. The plant operators refused. After five days, the inversion layer broke and the brown fog blew away. Eleven of those who died did so on that final day. A local doctor estimated that if the weather had held another day, the death toll would have been in the hundreds, rather than the tens.
That Sunday, as the sky broke and rains came, the zinc works finally agreed to reduce operations. They went back to normal the next day.
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