Rights for all only possible with fundamental change

by Tim Shenk

Everybody’s got a right to live.

It seems like a simple statement, one everyone could get behind. Children have a right to eat and learn and develop, in homes and neighborhoods free of violence. Everyone has a right not to be homeless in a country where there are 11 empty housing units for each person who needs a place to stay.

Yet our economic system has been based historically on freedoms, not rights. The freedom to choose whether to work under the conditions set by the employer. The freedom of the employer to hire, or not, based on his or her own criteria. And, if you won’t or can’t work, the freedom to starve.

In an expanding economy, this arrangement can work relatively well, at least for some. The post-World War II era was an opportunity for many, mostly white people, to secure good jobs and join a growing middle class.

Now, however, the job market is shrinking. Business leaders and researchers have acknowledged that nearly half of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation in the next 10 to 20 years.

Automation is already a necessity in a competitive business environment, and this trend will only accelerate. Yet replacing humans with machines creates a crisis in sales. People who aren’t working can’t buy what’s being produced. Lagging sales trigger slowdowns in production, which trigger more cost-cutting measures like layoffs and union busting.

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival lays bare these unsettling realities by bringing to the national consciousness the stories of those who the system has locked up, locked out and left behind. This issue of the CUSLAR Newsletter is an attempt to present a few of these stories for collective reflection and study.

Longtime CUSLAR members and readers of this publication will attest that this has been CUSLAR’s task for over 50 years. Our brothers and sisters in Latin America have long insisted on the horrific consequences of this economic model backed by the deadly force of dictatorial states. Now with 140 million poor and low-income people in the U.S. fighting to make ends meet, it’s more clear that the crisis is global and not just a problem for “underdeveloped” countries.

The economic system as it exists now, with its obligation to pursue profit above all else, follows a set of laws stronger than the goodwill of any progressive business leader or politician. Piecemeal solutions cannot solve this crisis. That’s why the Poor People’s Campaign’s interlocking demands to address systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation — together — are so powerful: they point to the need to question the very roots of the poverty-producing, violence-inducing system we live in.

The current economic model of social production for private profit can never meet needs of the majority. Any system that doesn’t serve humanity has outlasted its usefulness and must be transformed.

How will it be done? The Poor People’s Campaign has given us a model of nonviolent moral fusion direct action to mobilize across geography and across historic lines of division.

In addition, Campaign co-chair Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II has called for “citizenship schools for the 21st Century.” These will be spaces for learning the strategy  and tactics of movement building and will draw on the rich experiences of the U.S. civil rights movement’s citizenship schools.

Marching together, raising demands and risking arrest together, are important, as are taking care of each other. And whether we win or lose today, an engaged study of history and social theory will ensure we’re more prepared for the social justice work of tomorrow.


Tim Shenk is the editor of the CUSLAR Newsletter and a member of the New York State Coordinating Committee of the
Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.


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