Above photo: Civil rights leaders hold hands as they lead a crowd of hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington DC, August 28, 1963. Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
But history shows us we cannot rely on our leaders to pursue them; it is up to us.
In the run-up to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris taking office on January 20, a key debate raging now is about what kind of change they will usher in. Some say it is clear from those two leaders’ biographies that they herald the bold transformations needed to tackle the inequalities that scar society. Others say it is clear from their biographies that they will not. History suggests, however, that neither of those arguments gets it quite right. That key to what happens is what we do, together.
For my new book, How to Fight Inequality, I looked at what we could learn from how inequality had been tackled in the past. What I found, across the world, was that progress in tackling inequality was never simply gifted by political leaders. It was won through people power.
That we cannot rely on political leaders to bring change for us is not because policymakers are venal and uncaring. Indeed, far too much time is lost, when we could be organising, by first trying to work out if people in power are personally nice or not nice – as if that is what determines whether or not we need to organise. Rather, the point is having good policymakers is not enough to shift inequality – there are too many pressures on them from the interests at the top, which need a countervailing pressure from below. Remember the story of President Lyndon Johnson telling Martin Luther King: “I know what I have to do, but you have to make me do it.”
The famous progressive policies enacted in the US from the 1930s to the 1970s would not have come about without a powerful combination of pressures from below. They were won by trade unions, Black organisations, churches and other progressive grassroots groups together devoting their energies, in Dr King’s words, “to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands.”
In the Venn diagram of the movements are people like African American trade union organiser Philip Randolph, who successfully pressured both the Franklin D Roosevelt and the Kennedy-Johnson governments by reminding them of the power of organised people – without which we would not remember them as such reforming presidents.
And more important even than the famous movement figureheads were the huge numbers of movement organisers. As civil rights activist Diane Nash noted: “It took many thousands of people to make the changes that we made, people whose names we’ll never know. They’ll never get credit for the sacrifices they’ve made, but I remember them.”
Trade unions were key. Unionisation does not change wage levels in firms, it changes power and therefore policy in nations. Indeed, high rates of tax on the superrich, and relatively high investment in public services to benefit people, were maintained in this period under both Democrat and Republican presidents. In a fascinating reversal of that, by the 1990s, when far fewer people were organised in unions, both Democrat and Republican parties pursued economic approaches that were in many respects less progressive than either had pursued in the 1950s and 1960s.
So whether Biden and Harris will preside over radical shifts that the COVID-19 crisis has shown to be key is not only, or even mainly, up to them. It is up to us.
The election was not the end of the process, but only one part of it. If the US – and other nations – are really to turn the corner on inequality, it will be through the swarming of what Reverend William Barber calls “Fusion Coalitions”: When people come together in ever larger numbers in connected movements to ensure that their wages go up, their healthcare is provided, and they are not burdened by debt; to at last break the hold of white supremacism and structural violence; and to win a Green New Deal to protect their environment, provide quality public transport and create millions of jobs. It is not just that these are worth fighting for – it is that only through millions of people fighting for them that will they be won.
No one saves others; people standing together is how they liberate themselves. It can be slow and it is always complicated and it sometimes fails – but it is the only way it works. King, when asked why he needed to organise rather than focus only on persuasion, replied: “We have not made a single gain without determined pressure.”
So as we look forward to the removal van entering the White House, let us all breathe a welcome sigh of relief, but then, recalling history, let us remember this: Hope is not above us – it is around us.
Ben Phillips is the author of How to Fight Inequality, published by Polity Press. He is an advisor to the United Nations, governments and civil society organisations, was Campaigns Director for Oxfam and for ActionAid, and co-founded the Fight Inequality Alliance.