Moving Beyond Single-Issue Politics

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The idea of a movement of movements has bounced around for many years, for a movement that would transcend single-issue boundaries to accomplish a broad and transformative agenda.

The idea has a basic logic, that the towering challenges that face us – climate and general ecological deterioration, wealth inequality and social justice, war and peace – have common and systemic roots. We are unable to successfully address any one issue on its own because they are woven together by the realities of who has power in society. Only a unified movement of movements capable of carrying a coherent and broad-ranging vision for systemic transformation can overcome those realities and accomplish real change.

The climate crisis certainly provides evidence for that proposition.

“Under current policies we are headed for 2.8 degrees (celsius) by the end of the century,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said, announcing a new report UN Environment Program report lining out how the world is failing to meet climate goals. “In other word we are headed for a global catastrophe.”

National pollution reduction commitments and net zero plans theoretically could reduce overall heating to 1.8 degrees Celsius, but “this scenario is not currently credible,” UNEP said.

The title of the UNEP report underscores the reality The Closing Window: Climate crisis calls for rapid transformation of societies.  “To get on track to limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we would need to cut 45 per cent off current greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. For 2°C, we would need to cut 30 per cent. A stepwise approach is no longer an option. We need system-wide transformation,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

“We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over,” Andersen said. “Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”

Any honest reading says we are nowhere close. In fact, we are going the wrong way at a near record rate. A new report says carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere this year will be more than 50 percent above pre-industrial levels. The pandemic decline is over. Humans will spew around 40.6 billion tonnes of CO2 the atmosphere this year, just 0.3 tonnes shy of the 2019 record. Decades of organizing, lobbying, demonstrating, and protesting have produced incremental progress, possibly diverting us from worst case scenarios. But we are still falling desperately short of the necessity.

Systems in crisis

It’s not just climate.  There is widespread evidence of crisis across systems. In terms of wealth inequality, the top 1% captured 38% of all new wealth growth from 1995-2021, while the bottom 50% gained only 2%. The world’s top 10% holds 76% of all wealth, while the bottom 50% has 2%. In the U.S., the top 1% held 32.3% of wealth at the end of 2021, a record share, and more than the 30.2% owned by the bottom 90%.

Meanwhile, in a world that has critical needs for social equity and climate response, military spending is hitting new levels, reaching a new high of $2.1 trillion in 2021. That is the seventh year of sustained growth. The world’s nations are pumping up their development of high tech weaponry. The U.S. share was $801 billion. In reality, because major elements such as nuclear weapons production are in a separate budget, the real U.S. military budget is more like $1.25 trillion, according to one estimate.

Why when the climate crisis is intensifying is action falling so far short, and in terms of climate pollution levels going the wrong way? Why when the richest 1% has soaked up so much of social wealth, when people from the middle through lower end are struggling, is a program of wealth taxation and investment in social needs pushed to the margins? Why when communities lack clean drinking water, infrastructure is breaking down, and housing expenses are squeezing people to bankruptcy is there not a widespread debate on record military budgets?

Obviously, in all cases, it is because the political system is captured by powerful interests that seek to maintain a status quo that has put them on top. Various iron triangles perpetuate such arrangements. Industries unite with powerful bureaucracies and legislators to maintain business as usual. A iron triangle of fossil fuel and allied industries lines up with bought-and-paid-for politicians and friendly government agencies to push oil, gas and coal burning. Arms industries join with the Pentagon and allies in Congress to keep pumping up the military budget. In the case of wealth inequality, funder power in politics prevents legislative progress, while financial crisis bailouts by the Federal Reserve and other government agencies deepen the growing gap in society.

Only a broad-spanning movement composed of various movements for peace, justice and environment can assemble enough power to overcome these iron triangles. Creating such a united front will require a comprehensive and credible vision for an alternative.

Another world is possible, but how?

The idea of a movement of movements, present in activism at least since the 1980s, probably reached its high water mark in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the movement against corporate globalization. The cross-cutting nature of the groups and movements that showed up to protest the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, encapsulated in the imagery of the “teamster-turtle alliance,” spurred imaginations. This was the time that generated the enduring meme, “Another world is possible.” The early years of the World Social Forum, gathering grassroots groups from around the world, was a prime expression of this organizing.

Unfortunately, that trend seems to have faded. While the World Social Forum still meets, it seems to have lost a lot of its juice. In a piece entitled “Farewell to the World Social Forum?”, Roberto Savio, who has served on the WSF International Council, tracks the issue to one that plagued the anti-globalization movement and others that have risen since, including Occupy and the Black Lives Matter uprising, the failure to develop a coherent structure that moves aspirations to reality, answering how that other world is possible.

“The Charter’s first principle describes the WSF as an ‘open meeting place,’ which, as interpreted by the Brazilian founders, precluded it from taking stances on pressing world crises,” Savio writes. “This resistance to collective political action relegated the WSF to a self-referential place of debate, rather than a body capable of taking real action in the international arena.”

Savio points to the need for organizational structure. “For the vast majority of participants in cutting-edge progressive movements over the past half-century, the notion of a political party, or any such organization, has been linked to oppressive power, corruption, and lack of legitimacy . . . Nevertheless, coordination is essential for a diverse global movement to develop sufficient coherence. The task is to find legitimate forms of collective organization that balance the tension between the commitments to both unity and pluralism.”

In other words, the allergy to leadership and structures that hold authority has undermined the ability of progressives to join in common action and win. That has opened the door for the right, which has no such allergies, and indeed seems much more coherent and organized than the left. Though the right organizes largely around reactionary opposition to social change, and has little in the way of real answers for people’s lives, nonetheless, it has an organizing unity progressives lack now. That has had real political implications.

Because of the failure to organize in a coherent way, “the WSF has lost an opportunity to influence how the public understands the crises the world faces, a vacuum that has been filled by the resurgent right-wing,” Savio wrote in 2019. “In 2001, globalization’s critics emerged mainly on the left, pointing out how market-driven globalization runs roughshod over workers and the environment. Since then, as the WSF has floundered and social democratic parties have bought into the governing neoliberal consensus, the right has managed to capitalize on the broad and growing hostility to globalization, rooted especially in the feeling of being left behind experienced by working-class people.”

Somehow, we need to turn this around.

Raw material for movement building

There are many streams from which a movement of movements that joins to seek fundamental change can emerge. The climate justice movement is perhaps the prime venue. Since around the mid-2010s, a climate movement that was largely focused on technical solutions, and led by older white professionals, has morphed into a far more diverse and exciting climate justice movement with a great deal of youth leadership, and a far greater inclination to direct action. It does look at climate at a systemic issue of economic and social justice, and has made may connections with racial justice causes and organizers. The key idea is intersectionality.  I see this in my own Seattle backyard, where climate justice organizers have developed strong alignments with prison abolitionists and social housing advocates.

Another of those streams from which a mighty movement river might grow is service industry labor organizing. Again led by young people, this is the highest pitch of labor organizing in the U.S. in decades. Amazon, Starbucks, Apple and other consumer-oriented companies have felt the bite. They are fighting it hard, but a strong wave is rising, driven by people’s basic economic necessities. Because of the nature of the labor force, this movement also brings issues of racial justice to the fore.

Working on issues of climate, racial and labor justice as well as others, a new generation of young organizers is coming to the fore, and with a whole lot of media savvy. The material for a movement of movements is clearly at hand. In future posts, I plan to flesh out practical ideas for how we might build a united movement of movements, organizing at local, regional, national and global scales. In line with the orientation of The Raven, I am pondering how these might grow at a local scale, building relationships and campaigns in place, and confederate more broadly.

What we have done so far is not working, as the intensification of our multiple, interlocking crises demonstrates.  A movement of movements is more necessary than ever to get to their common roots.

This first appeared in The Raven.