The following is adapted from a talk delivered at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, held on September 10, 2012 at the CUNY Graduate Center.
I’m told that Michael Harrington once wistfully commented to colleagues that he had written sixteen books, and on the dust jacket of the sixteenth, the publisher had put, “By the author of The Other America.” It is entirely fitting that Mike should be best remembered for his first work. It influenced President Kennedy, and President Johnson sent Mike a pen from the signing of the Economic Opportunity Act, the War on Poverty. The book has sold well over a million copies.
We should remember, however, that Mike’s other fifteen books were about socialism. Unlike many on the left, Mike was not an impossibilist. He believed that through union organization and an expanded safety net, the lives of everyday people—both the poor and the middle class—could be vastly improved, even under capitalism. Indeed, Mike-the-Socialist was far more optimistic about this than many liberals are today.
Nonetheless, in a subsequent essay, “Poverty and the Eighties,” Mike concluded: “There was progress; there could be more progress; the poor need not always be with us. But it will take a political movement much more imaginative and militant than those in existence in 1980 to bring that progress about.”
What happened? Why, from 1962 to the present, has that movement not come about? Indeed, everything now seems to be moving in the wrong direction. Last July an Associated Press survey of economists predicted that the poverty rate in 2012 would rise to the same level it was in 1965, the year after President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act.
When Mike was writing The Other America, the United States was entering a period of prosperity and rising standards of living that many people now think of as the good ol’ days. The great economic boost from the Second World War had not yet crested. In addition, there was a stimulus program: $35 billion a month (in today’s dollars) for the Vietnam War. Of course, many people were left out of the rapid rise of family income—the elderly, people of color, often women, and those in impoverished regions such as Appalachia. But it seemed altogether reasonable then, and more important, non-threatening, to suggest that those left out be given a chance to get in. Rising prosperity would cover the costs. Government need only promote equal opportunity, and the income would take care of itself.
But in the United States, nothing is ever straightforward.
DEPENDING ON which numbers you stressed, poverty in the early 1960s was either a mainly white problem or a mainly non-white problem. (Non-white is the Census Bureau’s phrase.) In 1964, there were seven million white families in poverty and two million non-white families. Clearly, a white problem. But while the incidence of poverty for the whole population was 20 percent, it was 44 percent for non-white families. Clearly, a non-white problem.
You and I know that poverty is poverty. But because white poverty was better hidden and less visible, and because the major social movement from the mid-fifties on was the civil rights movement, poverty began to be viewed as something pertaining to brown people, and anti-poverty measures were often seen as what the government did to help black people. Needless to say, this view was helped along by powerful economic and political actors.
The civil rights movement rightly equated equal opportunity with integration, in schools, neighborhoods, and jobs. The movement sought access to what until then had been, in effect, affirmative action for white Americans. But for many whites, equal opportunity was one thing, and integration was something entirely different.
The negative perceptions of integration were borne of racism and hysteria, but some industries learned to profit from that hysteria. In housing, the white working class had benefitted from postwar government mortgage support and other programs, and home ownership became one of its main forms of savings. The real estate industry’s criminal practice of blockbusting (to deliberately spark white flight) and the bank’s thieving practice of redlining (to automatically deny loans to certain communities) meant that housing integration often did result in reduced home values.
In the labor market, people of color had long been relegated to the worst jobs and concentrated in sectors that were deliberately excluded from some legal labor protections. Professionals—doctors and lawyers—pass on their money and status by sending their children to graduate school. Skilled tradesmen couldn’t do that. Instead, white tradesmen got their children (at least the boys) into the union apprenticeship program, which transferred their skill to the next generation. Was it cronyism and unfair? Indeed, it was. Did the demand to open a limited number of apprenticeships to all comers cause some union members to feel that a benefit was being taken from them? Indeed, it did. And was this necessary integration a perfect opportunity for the Right to exploit? Indeed, it was. The white backlash against civil rights and, with it, the War on Poverty was rapidly in the making.
Starting in the 1970s things got worse. The economic growth rate began what is now five decades of stagnation. Higher-wage, unionized, industrial jobs vanished as the Midwest became the Rust Belt. The U.S. balance of trade took a nose dive. Wall Street deregulation facilitated the rapid transfer of wealth from workers and homeowners to bankers. Today, the threat to the middle class is widely understood. But while working people felt the effects quickly, it took almost two decades for that perception to register in the public mind. During that period, many white middle-class people began to feel that their problems were being ignored, especially by liberals and Democrats who continued to advocate for the poor.
Right-wing organizations and the Republicans, by virtue of their vociferous opposition to anti-poverty measures, were thereby able to pose as the champions of the white middle class, without actually doing anything to help them—just the opposite.
In his introduction to the 1993 edition of The Other America, Irving Howe noted that poverty remains. “This is not the result of some decree of nature…nor the result of the ‘laziness’ of the poor,” he said. “It is due to social neglect and cynicism. It is also due to a failure of political will.” To this we must add that it is also due to a mass social base, mobilized in outright opposition, with well-funded political backing and ideological infrastructure.
WHAT ARE we to make of this, as we look for ways to continue Mike’s legacy of combating poverty? In his essay “Poverty in the Seventies,” Mike said, “if we solve the problem of the Other America, we will have learned how to solve the problems of all of America.” In this case and at this time, the converse is also true. If, and only if, we can solve the problems of all of America can we solve the problems of the poor.
The broader the problems we attempt to solve, the broader the base will be for progressive social change overall. This means that instead of thinking of poverty as a distinct and static category, defined by income, we need to think instead of the process—of impoverishment. This process effects far larger numbers than are officially poor. Impoverishment is people losing—their jobs, their homes, their health care, their pensions, their chance to go to college or send their kids. It has no upper or lower limits. Impoverishment doesn’t even have to occur; just living under the ongoing threat of it can ruin your life. Impoverishment is what is happening to the middle class. Impoverishment allows us to talk about poverty with the middle class. And it is what will allow us to build that democratic, majoritarian movement we need to overcome poverty.
This means that we should educate about race-based inequalities and be explicit about racial justice, and at the same time fight for greater security for all people. Increasing Social Security benefits, raising unemployment compensation, universal paid sick leave, moratoria on evictions and student loans, single-payer health care, investing in child and elder care, a living income for those unable to work, a massive green energy public works program, targeting the jobs to address the communities hardest hit by the recession, raising the minimum wage, and enforcing strong union rights to protect every workers’ rights, no matter their citizenship status or industry. This is not a shopping list. It is a new kind of comprehensive, universal social safety net program, if it is truly implemented for all. Actually, it isn’t new at all. President Roosevelt thought of most of it, but the Democrats have forgotten.
At the same time, we need to remember that there was a reason that Mike worked so tirelessly to build an explicitly socialist organization. We must stress that there are certain problems to which only socialists, and socialism, have solutions.
Let me give you an example. “Skilled Work, Without the Worker” ran a recent New York Times headline, describing the new generation of industrial robots that surpass human dexterity and speed. We see mechanization in self-service cashier machines at the grocery store, but I’m talking about robots that assemble electric razors so rapidly that they have to be enclosed in glass cases to protect the human workers who service them. FoxConn, the brutal Chinese company that assembles Apple products (among others), plans to install over a million such robots. Speaking of his current one million workers, the Chairman of Foxconn said, “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.” In addition to assembling goods, such robots are packing goods and farm products for shipment faster than people can. They retrieve orders from warehouse shelves almost as fast as an Olympic sprinter, and they do it twenty-four hours a day, every day, with no coffee break.
This is just starting to happen, but even without the next generation of robots fully in place, the UN International Labor Organization reports that half of the world’s work force can’t find a regular full-time job. The fact is, we have reached the point where the satisfaction of material human needs no longer requires that every adult on the planet work a forty-hour week. The jobs are not coming back.
This gives us a choice. We can go the capitalist route in which the new technology leads to unemployment and poverty, or we can go the socialist route where we all stay in school longer, work a shorter week, take longer vacations, and retire sooner. Those are the choices.
“But,” you say, “why can’t we just work less and take longer vacations under capitalism?” My response is: “don’t ask me, just ask any capitalist.” They will explain why it isn’t possible, and hire an army of lobbyists to stop it, and an army of professors to teach your kids that it is a silly idea, and an army of media commentators to repeat their message.
Of course it’s possible, but they won’t allow it! Capitalism is suicidal! Mike knew it, Dissent knows it, the Democratic Socialists of America know it. The future must be socialist!
Maria Svart is the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America.