by Tim W. Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
Unite the Poor! The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is based on an idea whose time has come.
“Unite the Poor” was also the central concept behind the 1967-68 Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King said:
“The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” (Massey Lectures, 1967)
The original Poor People’s Campaign has been written off in historical footnotes as a failure. Indeed, though the Campaign did win some policy gains, it did not unite the poor or develop leaders for a longer-term human rights movement. This was partly because of a lack of clarity among the remaining leaders after Dr. King’s assassination and partly because of targeted state counterinsurgency to manipulate and sow division.
In addition, something that’s often overlooked in the study of that period is that in 1968, the global economy was still in expansion. Coming out of World War II, the US was in a unique position to take full advantage. An expanding economy gave this country’s working class certain expectations that they could rise in the future even if they were in hard times at the moment. Capital’s surplus also funded public programs that served as a social safety net and bought social peace in the US while revolutions raged in the Global South. The message to workers was, keep your head down and work hard enough, and you’ll make it.
Labor-replacing technology changes the game
Today, we’re in a contracting economy, so the message is still there, but many of the social programs and the possibility for “making it” for most people have gone away.
What has changed the equation is technology, which has prompted some to refer to the era we’ve entered as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will be bigger and more far-reaching than anything we’ve seen yet, because technology today replaces human labor.
It’s much more than ATMs and automated check-outs at the supermarket. It’s “lights-out manufacturing” that literally runs in the dark on the shop floor because production is fully automated and robots don’t need light to see. It’s bots that research law cases and do surgery and drive trucks and freight trains, and on and on.
Technology is replacing human labor in almost every industry. According to a recent Oxford University study, 47 percent of current jobs in developed nations will be gone in 25 years. And most of us can’t avoid poverty very long if we don’t have a job. So the so-called middle class is disintegrating and the poor is the largest growing section of society.
This drive toward more automation and less human labor is an irreversible trend under the current economic model. Those who control automated production today will win out over more labor-intensive ways of producing. More automation means more unemployment, more pressure on the existing workforce to do more for less — and ultimately more poverty.
No amount of retooling, retraining or reskilling workers will counteract this. There are only so many jobs in coding and software, and even many of these are being replaced by artificial intelligence (AI). On its current trajectory, say the authors of the new book Inhuman Power, AI is an ultimate weapon of capital. Economists are starting to whisper among themselves that the next two years are going to be worse than the 2008 recession.
Understanding the times we’re in, and the times we’re about to be in
In this context, the Poor People’s Campaign’s call to “Unite the Poor” into an independent political force understands the times we’re in, and the times we’re about to be in. The Poor People’s Campaign is a moral call, but it’s not just morally correct. It’s also not just one more cause in a sea of good causes.
What makes this Campaign unique is that it’s positioned to address actual real material conditions we’re facing and will face until we fundamentally transform society. The Campaign is built on the study of history and economics, which tell us: 1) now is the first time we as a human species have enough technical knowledge and infrastructure to provide for everyone and heal the planet without exploitation, and 2) technology has sped up the moment at which we’re able to notice what the vast majority of humanity has in common, which is our lack of any real security, dignity or freedom under the current economic and political system.
That means that most of us are either poor or not yet poor. The Campaign Audit released last spring, “The Souls of Poor Folk,” shows that there are 140 million people who are poor and low-income in the US today: people living paycheck to paycheck, people only one health crisis or major car repair away from poverty. One hundred and forty million people is nearly half of the US population. So it’s not just a small group affected by poverty.
These staggering figures indicate that we’re poor or teetering on the edge of poverty not because of our individual failings, but because that’s how the poverty-producing system is playing out. The symptoms are ugly and devastating, and they never hit all of us equally. Structural racism means that a higher percentage of Black and Brown people are impoverished, and there are more barriers to escaping poverty. But percentages only tell part of the story — the sheer numbers show that 67 million white people are poor or low-income as well, by far larger than any other racial group.
“Unite the Poor,” then, is about all of us. It’s not about “charity activism” or even primarily about helping the less fortunate. “Unite the Poor” is not just a slogan. It’s a strategy for overcoming how we’ve been pitted against each other and for challenging the root of our collective hurt and pain.
What does “Unite the Poor” mean?
What does it mean to unite the poor? It means today’s Poor People’s Campaign should be about identifying, strengthening and connecting efforts in which poor folks are organizing, and strengthening the leaders of these efforts. Many of these groupings may be incipient and may not look radical or even particularly progressive. But they will have an element of meeting people’s needs through some form of project of survival.
Unite the Poor means not ignoring the pre-2020 electoral context we’re entering but also staying aware that we are building an independent political force that must not be a pawn of either major party. Our goals include legislative victories, but our true lasting victory is the consolidation of an ever larger, ever clearer, group of leaders willing to commit to the long haul.
Why Unite the Poor? To put it simply, it may be our best shot at killing the system before the system kills us. I don’t think that language is too strong. There is a growing consensus — with plenty of data to back it up — that capitalism is destroying our ability to survive as a species. Fifty years ago, Dr. King spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign to launch “a revolution against this injustice,” and for all of the advances we’ve made since those days, we’re closer to the brink than ever.
While many of us find it easier to imagine a zombie apocalypse than the end of capitalism, we do have an obligation to future generations to try to salvage some of this planet for them to live on.
It’s now actually possible to make a leap to a cooperative society, but we won’t get there because a few people convince the world’s leaders to change their course. A movement is necessary for that: Frederick Douglass said that “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
“Unite the Poor” is our North Star by which we know if we’re on track. Not just because it’s morally correct, but because in this moment in history, it’s materially imperative. Conditions will drive more and more people toward poverty and precarity, and for that reason building a Poor People’s Campaign is more possible today than 50 years ago. Because poverty affects so many of us and will affect many more, the Campaign is also more necessary and more urgent than ever.
Tim W. Shenk is a member of the New York State Coordinating Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Photos: NYS Poor People’s Campaign Facebook page. From the June 2019 Poor People’s Moral Action Congress in Washington, DC. “Veterans for Peace” photo: Hope In Focus / Steve Pavey.