A Different Substance

Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It by Kevin A. Young, Tarun Banerjee, and Michael Schwartz. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 224 pages. $23.
The cover of Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It

John Dewey was right: elected politicians are “the shadow cast on society by big business”—and, we would add, by powerful state institutions like the military and law enforcement agencies. While politicians do exercise a degree of autonomy, the general parameters of their activity are determined by those larger institutional forces, the roots and dynamics of which we have sought to explain in these pages.

The dominance of corporations, we argue, derives first and foremost from their control over the investment of capital. This gives them enormous economic, political, and social power, since they can disrupt, or threaten to disrupt, the functioning of the entire society by withholding capital. Other large institutions like the military and law enforcement agencies have narrower domains of influence, but they too can exert leverage over government policy in areas where they have the ability to withhold needed resources or participation.

Dewey was also right that changing “the shadow will not change the substance.” Putting different politicians into office does not alter the structure of political power. Imagine, for a moment, that in 2016 the Democratic Party leadership had cared more about defeating Donald Trump than about maintaining the party’s pro-corporate orientation, and that Bernie Sanders had been elected instead of Trump. President Sanders would have been severely handcuffed, not only by two hostile parties in Congress but, more importantly, by the need to avoid disinvestment by the corporate elite and the disruptive noncompliance of unelected state institutions. He would have been compelled to retreat from many of his progressive campaign promises, lest capitalists unleash the awesome power of the capital strike.

The same would apply to any other progressive candidate, and even the most dedicated radical leftist, in today’s neoliberal capitalist world. The experience of social democratic and leftist governments in Cuba, Chile, France, Greece, Venezuela, and elsewhere since the 1960s highlights the power of the capital strike in action. Even the prospect of a leftist’s electoral victory is often enough to send investors fleeing.

US policymakers often encourage capital strikes as a way of coercing other governments: through sanctions, through the denial of credit from US-dominated bodies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and through other signals to investors. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the State Department decided that “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba,” including a complete embargo and other policies designed to “make the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” More recently, one of Obama’s ambassadors described sanctions as a means to “go after companies and individuals to put pressure on them” in order to “get their government to change.” He was thus articulating a main theme of this book: if you want to change public policy, you have to threaten the functioning of the institutions with real power to influence the government.

Political leverage for the general population rests on a similar approach. The normal equation of forces can be altered by a mass movement that threatens the elite institutions that typically call the shots. The best way to counter the political power of those institutions is to disrupt their profits or their functioning. Institutional chaos can force their leaders to look more favorably upon reform, and/or force politicians to support reforms that will bring the chaos to an end. The route to real progressive reform goes through the corporations and state agencies that exercise power over the politicians. In the absence of this kind of mass disruption, any progressive reforms to government policy will be weak and easily reversible, as the Obama era demonstrates.

This argument challenges the conventional wisdom in liberal and progressive circles, where electoral strategies remain hegemonic. The Democratic Party necessarily promotes this electoral orientation, since the party’s viability relies on the illusion that Democratic candidates will solve our problems. But electoralism is not limited to the Democrats: forces to their left often buy into the notion that electoral campaigns hold the key to change. After all, there are major differences in the platforms and rhetoric of the political parties, and the two major parties work together to portray all their policies as reflective of their voting bases. In the absence of large disruptive mass movements, it may seem easier to work on an electoral campaign than to build a movement from the ground up.

To be sure, many progressive activists do not follow the electoral logic. Beginning around 2010, the US witnessed an upsurge in organizing targeting the “substance” of corporate power. Climate organizers launched a mix of disruptive direct actions and lawsuits against fossil fuel infrastructure projects. In 2018, the executives of pipeline companies complained that “since the rise of the ‘Keep It in the Ground’ movement, projects were being delayed by a rising tide of protests, litigation and vandalism. ‘The level of intensity has ramped up,’ Kinder Morgan CEO Steven Kean said . . . ‘There’s more opponents, and it’s more organized.’”

Nationwide protests targeted the companies and investors behind the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. More quietly, local protests and legal action helped halt the construction of scores of coal-fired power plants during the Obama years, and had a bigger impact on combatting climate change than anything the administration itself did. Numerous fossil fuel divestment campaigns also took root across the country, targeting campus endowments, city and pension-fund investments, and bank lending practices. If these efforts continue to grow, they could shift more investment to cleaner energy sources and help force fossil fuel companies to alter their own behavior. Movement pressure may also help push non-energy businesses—many of which face threats from climate breakdown—to turn against fossil fuel interests.

Recent history also contains examples of mass disruption forcing non-corporate institutions to change their behavior, leading to progressive change in government policy. The 2011 withdrawal of US soldiers from Iraq illustrates how mass action targeting the US military can weaken military leaders’ commitment to war, influencing in turn the decision-making of elected officials. As in Vietnam, the most important disruptive force was the uncontrollable violent and nonviolent resistance within the occupied country. Iraqi resistance forced the Status of Forces Agreement upon the Bush administration in 2008 and the final withdrawal upon the Obama administration in 2011. Internal dissent did not undermine the US military’s viability to the same extent as in Vietnam, but significant resistance did develop. Organized resistance coalesced around groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War (later renamed About Face: Veterans Against the War), which mobilized antiwar soldiers and veterans to speak out against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and Courage to Resist, which supported soldiers who refused to fight. As in Vietnam, however, the most consequential soldier resistance was unorganized, expressed in declining enlistment rates, plummeting morale, and escalating soldier suicides. Black youth enlistment dropped 58 percent from 2000 to 2007. Just a few months after the March 2003 invasion, officers in Iraq reported that morale levels had already “hit rock bottom” and noted some interesting strategies of resistance: “In some units, there has been an increase in letters from the Red Cross stating soldiers are needed at home, as well as daily instances of female troops being sent home due to pregnancy.”

The problems multiplied thereafter, with later polls finding that 40 percent of active-duty soldiers disapproved of the war and that large majorities favored immediate or near-term withdrawal. While the decisive mass action came from Iraqis, this internal resistance undoubtedly entered into the thinking of both military and civilian officials.

The most efficacious US labor mobilizations of the 2010s also deemphasized electoral activism and lobbying politicians, relying instead on strikes and other job actions. Most notable were the teachers’ strikes in Chicago in 2012 and in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago (again) in 2018–19. By directly disrupting the school system—usually with robust support from parents and students—these strikes forced substantial funding and pay increases, smaller class sizes, and other concessions from state and city governments. Leftists within the labor movement, as opposed to most top union leaders, have long understood the importance of workplace organizing and disruption. Rebuilding and reinvigorating the labor movement must be central to progressive organizing strategies in the years ahead.

Excerpted from Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It, by Tarun Banerjee, Michael Schwartz, and Kevin A. Young, published in 2020 by Verso. © 2020 Tarun Banerjee, Michael Schwartz, and Kevin A. Young.