Note: This detailed article includes a discussion guide for organizations and groups. A downloadable version of the document is also available from Grassroots Policy Project. The cover image for this article includes the face of Antonio Gramsci, whose theoretical framework informs this paper.
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
– Milton Friedman, architect of the neoliberal project
The relationship between crisis and social change
Moments of social crisis open up opportunities to advance radical forms of change that would be impossible in normal times. As Milton Friedman’s words illustrate, our enemies have learned this lesson well, taking advantage of crises to advance their ideas and policies. They have driven us into a series of crises, from the financial crisis of 2008 and Hurricane Katrina to crisis-level struggles over racial politics and now the crisis of the coronavirus epidemic. As a result – they have reshaped our economy, our government and our society to reflect the interests of the super-rich. Again and again, the left has been caught flat-footed in these moments. We have allowed the rich and powerful to use these moments to make super profits and to further consolidate the neoliberal project. We are writing this piece to help left organizers reorient in this moment of crisis, by building upon the necessary short-term work of survival and using this moment to make what has seemed “politically impossible” into the “politically inevitable.”
A few general notes about the role of crisis in social change before we dig into the coronavirus epidemic in particular.
- The word crisis comes from the ancient Greek word ἡ κρίσις (KRISIS) which means a “turning point,” like a turning point in a disease, and derives from the verb κρίνω, which means to “decide.” Crises are moments when things reach a breaking point. In moments of crisis, society stands at a crossroads, faced with different possible paths forward. Society needs to make a “decision” about the way to go. If our organizations are prepared, we can have a big influence on which path society chooses to take.
- Material crises – like financial crises, natural disasters and pandemics – can lead to a “crisis of legitimacy” for the established order. A crisis of legitimacy is a period when people lose faith in the established system. This tends to happen when many people’s lives are painfully impacted by the material crisis and the response of the ruling class is so ineffective that it begins to be seen as illegitimate. In these moments, new political ideologies and projects can gain traction and – in the right circumstances – become dominant.
- Moments of crisis represent both grave dangers and great opportunities. Crises have historically opened up space for left advance. In fact, many left movements have succeeded after material crises – like a war or a natural disaster – led to a crisis of legitimacy. But the contemporary right and the super-rich also understand that moments of crisis are opportunities for them to advance their radical agendas, and they are – in many ways – more prepared to take advantage of these openings quickly.
Stepping into a moment of crisis is both a question of orientation and a question of preparation. By “orientation,” we mean that we have to recognize the openings present in a moment of crisis, instead of focusing exclusively on the danger. By “preparation,” we mean that – if we have laid a clear foundation of organizational power, alternative ideas and radical demands – we will be ready to move more decisively when crises open up this kind of space.
General guidelines for responding to crisis
So, how do we step into a moment of crisis? We want to emphasize five things:
- BE NIMBLE: Crises open windows for change, but those windows don’t stay open forever. It is important to be able to respond quickly rather than moving slowly or limiting ourselves to plans that we developed before the crisis. We need to prepare our organizations to be nimble so that we’re ready to adapt and change our work as the crisis unfolds.
- GO BOLD: In moments of crisis, it is more possible to advance bold demands for structural reform than it is in normal times. Millions of people go through intense struggles in moments of crisis, and their immediate needs mandate solutions that go beyond what established mechanisms can address. As a result, bold demands often make more sense than incremental reforms in moments of crisis.
- MAKE MEANING: In moments of crisis, people need to be able to make meaning out of their changing reality. Because the old ways of understanding are inadequate to explain peoples’ lived experiences during a crisis, we have openings to challenge dominant narratives. But we can only do that if we have clarity on the story we need to tell and clear ways to get that story out to the people who need to hear it. That story needs to connect to connect directly to the ways in which people are experiencing the crisis and offer a narrative that connects those experiences to the bold reforms that we are advancing. If we miss this opening to consolidate a new story to make meaning of the moment, people will fall back into old narratives based on fear, scarcity and division.
- BUILD POWER: During moments of crisis, our organizations can grow much more rapidly than in normal times. In a crisis, huge numbers of people are open to stepping out of their daily routines and getting involved in social change efforts. Without organization, many of these people do not stay engaged after the immediate moment passes. We need a plan to quickly build mass mobilizations so we can both inform what happens and absorb the individuals who become involved.
- BUILD A BIGGER WE: In moments of crisis, our organizations can quickly move into much stronger positions of leadership. This can take a number of forms. First, changing circumstances can encourage us to build alliances with other organizations that had previously been distant or even antagonistic to us. Second, we can move beyond primarily leading our own communities to leading much broader sections of society.
Facing the nature of the COVID-19 crisis
The dangers of this crisis moment are profound. We are already experiencing a cascading wave of contagion that could have been prevented. If the government does not take more effective action than it has to date, hundreds of thousands of people will die preventable deaths, which will fall heaviest on poor people and communities of color. The hospital systems are becoming overwhelmed. This public health crisis has birthed an economic crisis, the impacts of which will continue to grow over the coming months.
This is a wave of crisis brought to us by capitalism, in its neoliberal form. Decades of the neoliberal austerity have decimated our government’s social welfare programs, which have been effective in addressing this pandemic in other nations. We are left to face this crisis without the most effective tool we have to contain it: a functional state. And we have a right nationalist at the helm of this faulty ship: Trump is pushing a narrative that places the blame for the pandemic on “China,” spinning an internationalist version of “dog whistle politics” in the attempt to direct people’s rage in line with his right nationalist political project. He is advancing inadequate free-market solutions and prioritizing corporate bailouts rather than investing in relieving popular suffering in a meaningful way. The Trump administration is moving quickly to take advantage of the moment to advance aspects of their radical agenda that have been thwarted over the last period: sealing off the Southern border, bypassing judicial rulings that require migrants to have due process, and more. There is the looming threat that Trump could attempt to take advantage of the powers given to him in this state of “national emergency” to undermine democracy by delaying or even cancelling the November election.
The stakes are incredibly high, and the dangers are profound. But there are also some significant openings in this moment for making real advances towards transformative solutions.
Laying the groundwork for rebuilding on new terms
Organizers have moved quickly to respond to the crisis, demanding everything from immediate relief to large-scale structural change, particularly Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and Universal Basic Income. A number of national organizing networks – including The Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Sunrise Movement, Working Families Party and the alliances driving the Green New Deal – have aligned behind the People’s Bailout, which offer a solid foundation for the development of a transformative approach to our demands for the coming period. Linking immediate relief with long-term rebuilding, they point in the direction we need to move. We will certainly see waves of local and state-level struggles over relief, health care and economic rebuilding, and there will likely be a series of future bailout and stimulus packages passed at the federal level in the coming months. Each of these sites of struggles opens up the possibility to push the envelope further over time.
It is crucial that left organizers do more than say, “I told you so,” listing out the policies like Medicare for All that would have been helpful had we already put them in place. Our primary task today is to lead boldly in the fight to win immediate demands for response and relief, which are badly needed and can garner widespread public support in this moment. We can knit these demands together with the larger reforms we want to institute. These openings will often look different than our preconceived policies, although they are not in tension with the trajectory of our established demands. We need to look for chances to win “stepping stone” reforms that can move us towards our larger vision, as well as openings to advance quickly into new territory that seemed unimaginable a month ago. One way to think about this is to approach our demands for immediate relief as building blocks that can lay the foundation – at both the policy and narrative levels – for rebuilding on new terms. We want to lift up two interconnected strategic pathways.
1. Building on emergency measures to take aspects of life out of the private market and putting them in public hands.
The successful passage of moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures in some states and localities has put fights into motions to roll out similar policies in states and localities around the country. That momentum has built into calls for moratoriums on utility shut-offs, and it is progressing even further into demands for moratoriums on all monthly payments (including rent, mortgage and utility payments) as well as debt forgiveness. This represents a profound shift – even if only temporarily – in the relationship between government and private property. It would have been unimaginable for the government to step into the private market in the interests of tenants and homeowners in this way a month ago. These emergency measures can help to shift the ways we think about government vis-a-vis the economy. They give us shared experiences that expand our public imagination. Once people have experienced directly how beneficial state intervention into the seemingly sacrosanct realm of private property can be, conservatives will find it hard to put the genie back into the bottle. We can build the political will that we need to win not only more transformative crisis relief measures, but to lay the groundwork for a rebuilding based on new relationships between the government and private property, through policies like universal rent control, social housing, a homes guarantee, debt cancellation, nationalization of utilities and more. This sets up a trajectory towards what is sometimes called “decommodification,” or taking aspects of life out of the control of the market and putting them in public hands.
2. Leveraging government loans and bailout as openings for public control and ownership.
In advocacy around the last round of government bailouts, organizers worked – to limited effect, given the limits of our current power – to ensure that relief went to poor and working people, rather than corporations alone. These are crucial demands to help families survive the storm of this crisis. However, there is an additional opportunity in these bailout packages that we cannot afford to miss: corporate bailouts represent a chance to assert greater public control over corporations. At a lower level, this takes the form of attaching strings to corporate bailouts that require them to abide by certain policies. Some low-level policies of this kind were included in the last bailout package, like requiring corporations to keep workers on payroll and limits to CEO bonuses or stock buybacks. This can and should be expanded in future bailouts to include requirements like paying workers a $15 minimum wage or generous sick leave. But there is an even more profound opportunity here: corporate bailouts represent a chance for the public to assert ownership rights over private corporations.
Corporate debt owed to the government can be converted into ownership stakes, which could be used to direct our economy towards meeting public needs and strengthening resilience. If the government ends up bailing out private landlords or mortgage-lending banks, we again have the possibility of leveraging that debt to either establish ownership stakes (for example, full or partial government ownership of the banks) or to institute conditions for forgiveness (for example, rent control). The federal government may need to step in to bail out hospitals and private insurers that may go bankrupt over the course of this crisis, and this is likely to strengthen the argument in favor of single-payer health care. Each of these sites can serve as a “stepping stone” to advance a larger push towards decommodification and public control: from pro-equity restrictions on financial corporations receiving bailouts to government ownership stakes to public banks, from government bailouts of hospitals to to government ownership stakes to the incorporation of formerly private hospitals into the public system. We missed this opportunity during the 2008 financial crisis, when the government bailed out big banks but neglected to assert any meaningful authority over their operations much less to assume ownership and turn finance into a public utility. We – once again – have an opening to nationalize significant aspects of the US economy, from fossil fuel corporations to the airline industry and beyond. Let’s not repeat that missed opportunity.
There will be a series of struggles over the next year, from fights at municipal and state levels to struggles over future relief and bailout packages. If we can move stepping stones like these into our fights, we will be strongly positioned to lead the rebuilding of our society and economy on new terms.
There are huge openings in this moment to change the public narrative in profound ways, but success on this front is far from inevitable. We are about to go through a collective experience of profound suffering due to decades of disinvestment in the public health infrastructure in this country, and people will also have to weather a massive economic downturn in the face of a safety net that was weak to begin with and has been further shredded by austerity. The medical infrastructure that has been built to serve profit-making objectives is profoundly ill-suited to stem the tide of an epidemic or meet the needs of the millions of people who will be suffering. People will be looking to make sense of these painful experiences.
Although the way in which the Trump administration has handled the coronavirus verges on the criminal, public opinion polls imply that only a small majority of people believe that Trump has handled the crisis poorly. As the epidemic unfolds and hundreds of thousands of people die, a crisis of legitimacy may emerge for the Trump administration, given its profoundly incompetent response to the pandemic. Here are three ideas we believe are important for us to move into the conversation.
1. Government for the Common Good.
We live in a moment when the private market has particularly deadly implications: discouraging sick people from getting tested because they couldn’t afford medical fees and forcing sick people to return to work out of fear of losing their jobs, their housing or their health insurance. Our shared experiences of the crisis will create fertile ground for the dissemination of narratives that directly counter the neoliberal adage that, “Government is the problem.” Now is the moment to loudly claim the need to build a stronger government to serve the common good. This goes hand in hand with narratives that expose the limits of market-based solutions to social solutions. Narratives about the limits of the market and profit-driven solutions can be woven throughout our work.
2. Interdependence instead of individualism.
There will be a profound contest over individualism versus interdependence in this period. Many people’s primary response has been towards individual consumption and hoarding, and this orientation is being actively (and opportunistically) promoted by the far right. At the same time, we are living in a time that makes our interdependence profoundly clear: we do not live in isolation from one another. We can only be as healthy as our co-workers, family members and neighbors. While we are all currently separated from each other physically, we are also experiencing our profound need to remain connected with our friends, family and community members. The ground is ripe to challenge individualism and to articulate interdependence as our only path forward.
3. We Need Each Other to Get Through This.
The primary narrative strategy that right nationalists are deploying is to blame immigrants and China for the coronavirus. This ranges from Trump calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” to the far right accusing China of partnering with George Soros and Bill Gates to produce the coronavirus as a bio-weapon to attack the United States. The right is also setting up a narrative that some populations are expendable, from grandparents to undocuemnted immigrants and people who are incarcerated, reflecting an often-racialized kind of social Darwinism. We need to directly challenge social Darwinism and racialized nation-baiting and emphasize that we need each other – inside the United States and internationally – if we are going to make it through this crisis. As always, if we remain silent on race, we not only support the maintenance of inequality, but we also set ourselves up to lose large sections of the population to these regressive racial politics.
There are a number of effective messaging guides circulating to promote these frames:
- Anat Shenker-Osorio has developed some effective messaging resources to help organizers work to build unity in the face of racial division, and organizations around the country have been adapting these to their particular conditions. Nicole Carty and Anthony Torres developed an aligned messaging guide that speaks to a more international framework.
- We particularly appreciate the “Represent Together” guide produced by the Million Voters Project in California and the framing of the Minnesota Covid-19 Response developed by an alignment of organizations in Minnesota.
- Organizers with Justice is Global, a project of People’s Action, are also working with these messaging guides to speak to the international aspects of this narrative struggle, with a focus on racialized nation-baiting.
Build power, build a bigger we
None of this will be possible if we don’t radically expand the numbers of people in our immediate base. But again, crises open up the chance to engage people in much larger numbers than in normal times, if we can develop mechanisms to do so. Here is one interesting experiment that we have already seen organizers developing: Before the coronavirus epidemic hit, People’s Action was moving an ambitious national training to prepare organizers across its network to engage in deep canvassing. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, they are building a network-wide initiative to engage in mass digital deep canvassing to connect with hundreds of thousands of people. Their aim is to develop mechanisms for mutual support and to provide a vehicle through which people can make meaning of this moment in ways that challenge dominant narratives of individualistic hoarding and the private market as the solution. This approach to mass-level deep relational organizing through digital means will be crucial in this period, as the structures of our relationships begin to shift.
We have already seen hopeful signs of deeper alignment emerging across organizational lines: organizers from different (and historically competitive) national organizing networks connecting to align on impacting federal and local legislation, operations staff connecting to discuss how to build administrative and communications mechanisms that work in a time of “social distancing,” established networks expanding to absorb more organizations in search of coordinated work and more. We are hopeful these trends will continue as the stakes for our shared work grow ever higher.
But there is an even bigger question, beyond the alignment of already organized forces: the question of our ability to take on a broad-reaching leadership role in society as a whole during this crisis.
Like all social disasters, this crisis is going to impact communities of color and poor people the hardest. It is crucial that we develop organizing strategies to address the impacts on Black, Latino and Native communities that do not have adequate medical infrastructure; low-wage service and care workers who are on the frontlines of the epidemic without adequate physical protection or safety net protections; undocumented people who do not have access to government support programs; incarcerated people who face the risk of unchecked contagion, and more. At the same time, this crisis is going to devastate much broader sections of our society, leaving no community untouched. While the super-rich will be able to buy their way into quality healthcare, the reverberations of the coming failure of our medical infrastructure will be devastating to millions of poor, working and middle class people in cities, small towns and rural areas across the country.
This is a moment for us to decide if we want to focus solely on attending to the needs of our specific constituencies or if we are aspiring to lead society as a whole. We can see this latter, more promising, stance in an organizing project that the Sunrise Movement is rolling out to use the massive phone-banking system they built as part of their support for Bernie Sanders campaign to reach out to seniors and make sure they have the information they need to navigate the epidemic. The intent is to use this “mutual aid” work as a moment to plant seeds about the need for transformative policy solutions. According to The Guardian, “the idea came while quarantined friends in Philadelphia were “watching the administration just completely fail to respond to the coronavirus” and looking for ways to help. “We were just thinking – what would it look like if we responded to this crisis as organizers, if we had organizers in the Oval Office,” Sunrise Creative Director Alex O’Keefe told the news outlet. This stance is a crucial one. In the face of widespread failures of leadership, our movements cannot step in primarily as critics. We need to lead the response to the crisis in a way which prefigures popular governance and prepares us to lead at a mass scale in the months and years to come.
This moment calls on us to fight like we have never fought before. We will be waging this fight while our children need our support and attention, and we grieve the loss of friends and family members. We have found a saying that we learned from our friends at People’s Action to be helpful to our work to navigate this moment: “We call each other to greatness, but we don’t demand perfection.” This fight will be messy, and it will be difficult. We will be far from perfect, as individuals and as organizations. And still, this moment calls us to step into our most visionary and powerful selves, to move mountains to fight for our survival and for a rebuilding on new terms. This is the fight of our lives; it is the fight for our lives. We’re in this with you, imperfectly working to move mountains by your sides.
Stepping Into the Moment: The Coronoa-crisis
Understanding the moment: In moments of crisis, the established order loses its ability to govern using their established methods. It can then enter a “crisis of legitimacy” where people lose faith in its ability to govern effectively. Fractures can open up between elite forces. These are moments of both immense danger and real opportunity to advance deeply transformative change.
Some questions for discussion:
- Is the legitimacy of the Trump administration (representing the emergent right nationalist project) and/or the neoliberal project being shaken by the way they have handled the coronavirus outbreak? Is there potential for their legitimacy to be shaken still further in the future?
- What are the dangers that you see emerging as the pandemic spreads?
- And what are the political openings that we could move into?
Demands: In moments of crisis, it is more possible to advance bold demands for structural reform than it is in normal times. In fact, bold demands often seem to make more sense than incremental reforms in moments of crisis.
Some questions for discussion:
- What are the solutions that powerful forces are advocating for to address the coronavirus epidemic and the rebuilding that will be necessary?
- What are the demands that are emerging for immediate relief? About rebuilding?
- What are the bold demands we can advance in these times?
- What can we do to knit together the demands for immediate relief with longer-term bold reforms?
Narrative: In moments of crisis, people need to be able to make meaning out of their changing reality.
Some questions for discussion:
- What narratives are powerful forces telling about the coronavirus epidemic: why it spread so quickly and what the solutions are?
- What narratives are we telling about the corona virus epidemic: why it spread so quickly and what the solutions are?
- How are you using this moment to advance a deeper narratives about:
- The need for stronger government to serve the common good
- Challenging market-based solutions
- Emphasizing the need for interdependent (rather than individualist) solutions
- The need to overcome historic inequities and build a radically inclusive society
Building a bigger we: In moments of crisis, our organizations can quickly move into much stronger positions of leadership. This can take a number of forms. First, changing circumstances can encourage us to build alliances with other organizations that had previously seemed distant or antagonistic to us. Second, we can move from a stance of primarily leading our own communities to leading much broader sections of society.
Some questions for discussion:
- Are there other organizations you can connect with in this moment to build broader alignment?
- What are the needs and interests of your immediate constituency related to the coronavirus? What other sectors of the population would share those needs and interests? How can you step into relating with and leading these broader parts of society?
Responding quickly to the moment: Crises open windows for change, but those windows don’t stay open forever. It is important to be able to respond quickly rather than moving slowly or limiting ourselves to plans that we developed before the crisis.
Some questions for discussion:
- What established work can you let go of in this moment to make space to step into responding to the crisis?
- What immediate activities are you moving people into?
- What are ideas for mass participation, given the need for physical distancing?
Absorption: In moments of crisis, much larger numbers of people tend to become politically active. Without organization, many of these people do not stay engaged after the immediate moment passes.
Some questions for discussion:
- What mechanisms do you have to absorb new people into your organization? Do you need to develop new mechanisms?
- Are there ways you could multi-task work to build mobilization in the current moment with building mechanisms to absorb people (e.g. signing people up for trainings, developing social support committees, etc.)?