From Countervailing to Prevailing Power

Gun Rights

This article is part of Countervailing Power, a joint series by The American Prospect and The Forge: Organizing Strategy and Practice that explores the ways organizers can use public policy to build mass membership organizations to countervail oligarchic power. The series was developed in collaboration with the Working Families Party, the Action Lab, and Social and Economic Justice Leaders.


It’s no secret that 20th-century-style liberal democracy is in real trouble. A preprint of a national survey conducted in 2022 reveals that two-thirds of respondents believe our democracy is seriously threatened, and 50.1 percent believe that “in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States.” In the midst of this anxiety, 40 percent agreed that “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy,” pointing to a clear opening for authoritarians that is widening as the violence and unrest promulgated by white nationalist formations and paramilitaries increases the appeal of strongman-style leadership.

This anti-democratic threat is inextricable from the rise of oligarchic power. Law professors Kate Andrias and Benjamin Sachs thoroughly outline the money-in-politics challenges in a Yale Law Journal article in which they argue for new protections for groups like debtors, tenants, and welfare recipients to spur the formation of sustainable mass membership organizations. (They discuss this proposal in further detail in a roundtable for this series of The Forge and The American Prospect.)

We could not agree more enthusiastically with Andrias and Sachs about the need for poor and working-class people to organize into membership institutions that can counter the anti-democratic oligarchic threat. To ensure democracy not only continues but reaches its potential to be truly representative, we need organizing, and that means we need organizing institutions. People must experience multiracial, multigender, and multi-class democracy to believe that it can work. Andrias and Sachs note four areas in which the law can intervene to spur organizing institutions: legally protected spaces, freedom from retaliation, resource flows, and new ways to achieve and lock in wins and gains. In our view, all are necessary but, ultimately, insufficient to effectively counter oligarchy.

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It’s a real danger that organizers might pick up the useful instigation Andrias and Sachs offer without considering the historical and present fact that membership organizations of poor and working-class people do not inherently contest oligarchy—even when they are multiracial and multigender. The National Rifle Association is an obvious example. So are the Proud Boys and many far-right religious organizations, which in the United States are overwhelmingly Christian. But formations far from the valence of militarized racism or masculinity can also be large, heterogeneous, and pro-oligarchy—for example, the massive number of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb customers mobilized by those corporations against efforts to rein in their expansion.

The world over, 21st-century oligarchy is built on racism, patriarchy, and religious supremacism as constitutive parts of economic domination. For progressives and our organizations to effectively countervail and—hopefully—defeat oligarchy, we must better understand the forces we’re fighting against and the future we’re fighting for. Attaining countervailing power should not be a goal in itself; it is best understood as a stop on the way to becoming the prevailing power. That is, progressives should plan our fights against anti-democratic political factions with the clear aim of becoming the dominant political force and setting the “common sense.”

Oligarchy Today

Before we talk about building prevailing power, it’s important to dig deeper into how oligarchy is presenting itself in the here and now. Oligarchic candidates for public office—such as J.D. Vance, Mehmet Oz, Blake Masters, and Doug Mastriano—offer us an opportunity to reconsider our old, too-narrow definition of the economic. By marrying the so-called culture wars to issues like budgets, public health, and industrial and energy policy, such candidates are building mass-base constituencies for oligarchy.

For many of us, the term “oligarchic power” might at first feel old-fashioned, bringing to mind old men in top hats, as famously captured in this Puck cartoon. Men such as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller amassed wealth and power by running company towns powered by working people who did the mining, milling, and manufacturing (as well as all the socially reproductive care labor).

In the 21st century, oligarchs sport hoodies instead of top hats, but their wealth and power still depend on an age-old politics of discrimination and domination. This is important to note because we agree with Andrias and Sachs that “countervailing” organizations make material change in their members’ lives. But Andrias and Sachs don’t define “material benefits.” And because they point to the National Labor Relations Act as a jumping-off point, we are concerned that they are relying on a too-narrow definition of “material” along the lines of mandatory subjects of bargaining, which exclude a whole host of choices corporations make that impact workers and communities. Projects like Bargaining for the Common Good and Coworker.org have done exceptional work to invite working people to define for themselves what the most pressing issues in their community and workplace are—and to find ways to use worker power to achieve wins.

For example, the Chicago Teachers Union and United Teachers Los Angeles have gone on strike for demands that included resources for homeless students, expanded green space on campus, an end to the practice of wanding students, an immigrant support fund, sanctuary language to protect students from ICE, and nurses and social workers in every school. With Coworker.org, Starbucks worker Kristie Williams started a campaign to win a change in company policy so that workers would be permitted to show their tattoos. Williams explained how this was a health and safety issue in traditional terms and in broader, cultural terms, including destigmatizing tattoos. (This organizing is part of what led to union organizing at Starbucks today.)

This example points to the ways in which progressives’ definitions of the material and economic are often too narrow. So-called “culture wars”—around reproductive choice and health care, LGBTQIA freedom, racial liberation, and militarism—are not a distraction from the meat and potatoes of economic concerns, nor are they some sort of sleight of hand that prevents working-class people from understanding their real self-interest. Nor is there an easy mid-century solution: economic growth (elusive as that is in this time of secular stagnation) attached to gender- and race-neutral redistributive policies (as badly needed as redistributive policies are).

As our colleagues at Liberation in a Generation helpfully remind us, in the words of Toni Morrison, racism is profitable. Corporate executives often say one thing and do another. We find this a useful reminder because it upends an unspoken, false assumption that racism is bad for business. In fact, corporations and executives often say the “right” thing while funding its opposite, as in Michigan, where prominent corporations that cultivate a “pro-diversity” image—including marketing products and services to Black customers and making Black Lives Matter statements—have made contributions to right-wing elected officials pushing the voter suppression bill there. The Defend Black Voters effort is working to pressure four corporations to back away from that support. It’s worth noting, in this context, that two—Ford and GM—are unionized.

In the 21st century, oligarchs sport hoodies instead of top hats, but their wealth and power still depend on an age-old politics of discrimination and domination.

The sacralization of free-market ideology is also a feature of conservative Christian movements. In turn, business imperatives lead even nominally pro-democracy businesses to pursue anti-democratic tactics to protect their expanding business empire. It’s easy to point to Chick-fil-A (for its cultural fight against LGBTQIA freedom) or Hobby Lobby (for taking on Obamacare) as examples of the convergence of business and far-right Christian interests. Less comfortable are the ways that corporations not run by conservative Christians use the tactics of the Christian right to protect themselves from government action. For example, Facebook (now Meta) used anti-Black and antisemitic smears to try to discredit Color of Change for its efforts to force the platform to protect users of color.

Right-wing engagement on tech platforms is particularly profitable because it—more than any other form of engagement—feeds the huge data sets that power personalized advertising, the economic engine of platform profitability. Meta is not bringing religious exemption lawsuits to the Supreme Court, but the company profits off the popularization of far-right white Christian politics; in turn, these politics allow Meta to protect its business interests. Mark Zuckerberg is not a conservative Christian or a white nationalist, but his corporation aids and abets right-wing organizing because it meets his business needs.

It’s instructive that many membership organizations focused on “material conditions” do not contest such commonplace business operations. In fact, progressive organizations can (and do) mistake the tech industry’s growing power for possible opportunity. In early September, for example, global union federation UNI pulled a report critical of tech corporations’ contracts with the U.S. and U.K. militaries when Microsoft agreed to card-check neutrality for its recently acquired video game property Activision Blizzard. Veteran union staffers and observers will recognize the decision to pull the report in order not to jeopardize a neutrality agreement as business as usual. But these are not business-as-usual times. Any organization positioned to contest oligarchic power must do the work to understand oligarchy and its relationship to democracy—and to begin to weigh the medium-term dangers against possible short-term gains.

North American unions do not, as a rule, bargain over management decisions such as whether a corporation will contract with the military or police (or hire racist PR firms or donate to political candidates who deny election results or promote conspiracy theories). Activision Blizzard workers who might form a union—and we send them all our solidarity and support in doing so—are unlikely to have any leverage over such decisions. So while it’s an unqualified good to have more workers in bargaining positions, even a best-case win leaves the structures of oligarchy—the power we’re talking about countervailing—untouched.

Military and police contracts are a significant factor in cementing oligarchy because they bind the fates of the government and the private corporation, provide huge infusions of cash into those corporations, make policing and military more dangerous, and strengthen the coalition dependent on the outsized military and police budgets that prevent other working people (teachers and other public employees) from making needed gains. This pattern of oligarchy, too, is not new. Absent a holistic understanding of oligarchy, social control, and governance—and a long-term vision—even progressive mass membership organizations may find themselves taking a pro-oligarchic position, pitting our short-term interests against our long-term interests.

One way to understand this moment of right-wing ascendance is the shift of those time frames. From climate change to the specter of theocracy to the threadbare nature of American health care, issues that once felt “long-term” are now suddenly and surprisingly urgent. As scholars Nantina Vgontzas and Meredith Whittaker wrote at the beginning of last year, progressives must recognize now “the danger of leaving US tech capitalists at the helm of systems of social control while far-right authoritarians jockey for access.”

Finally, a holistic understanding of contemporary oligarchy means recognizing that we do not have the same political economy or international context that ended the Gilded Age and powered the post-WWII prosperity and expansion of public services—and, eventually, insufficient social inclusion—in the Global North.

In considering how progressives might build policy feedback loops that lead to prevailing power, we find it useful to disaggregate the example of the NLRA, as discussed by Andrias and Sachs. The total failure of laissez-faire capitalism in the 1930s cannot be overstated in creating the context for the rise of the New Deal. As the economist Marshall Steinbaum has argued, “Social democracy grew out of mass enfranchisement, but it did not win until capitalist claims about the origin and just distribution of wealth in an industrial economy were finally put to rest thanks to the discredit of the elite.”

Such discrediting was certainly catalyzed by the stock market crash in 1929, but social democracy was not a foregone conclusion. Steinbaum argues that the power to make real social democracy required defection of elites who previously had sided with capital and oligarchy against working people—something that only happened through massive, ongoing, and multigenerational organizing and political education by a left that was both deeply local and international.

Today, we see glimmers of ideological discrediting by many people’s experience of COVID, of inflation, and more. In the demonstrations and uprisings of 2020, we saw white people demonstrate for racial justice in numbers and proportions unheard of previously in U.S. history.

Elsewhere, Scot has narrated an example of the power of elite defection in his own family history. In the lead-up to the first successful farm labor strike in U.S. history in 1946, organizers created ethnic unions that mimicked the segregation of workers in the sugar industry. These early efforts failed, but a broader push that united the Asian ethnic groups succeeded. The unionization drive occurred within the context of a bigger groundswell for democratization, which drove field supervisors, many of whom were from Scotland and Portugal, to ally themselves with the workers rather than the owners, who were mainly white Americans. This flipped allegiance was then, and is now, race traitorship. We find that, in the context of this conversation, it’s helpful to revisit this example for two reasons.

First, race traitorship is predicated on the leadership of people; its importance cannot be excluded from the conception of anti-oligarchic formations. Second, the race traitorship of Scottish and Portuguese overseers is an example of what it takes to become a prevailing power. Scot’s family example is useful because it’s common rather than unique. Today, Portuguese-descended people in Hawaii are considered “local”—a term that historically excluded white people. Even now, Hawaii is a place where liberal values are—imperfectly—prevailing, which you can still see both in residents’ reflexive liberalism and in the balance of power in the Hawaii statehouse.

History offers many examples of organizations that co-created with their members expansive, ambitious ideas for the future.

In the roundtable in The Forge and the Prospect, Sachs zeroes in on the power and pro-organizing stance of both the NLRA and FDR. Outside the scope of the article is the rest of the context—the vision for people’s lives, their communities, their country, and the world that animated organizing at that time. Our reading of this period of history is that you don’t get coal miners—in Sachs’s example—into unions without both the president’s backing and the anti-extractive, reparative, and, yes, potentially feminist vision for Appalachia that, passed down, also animated Red for Ed.

Such cultural and international contexts are deeply relevant when we consider how and where leverage might be applied against oligarchy in particular places—in short, where to start and how to power anti-oligarchic policy feedback loops such that we don’t only counter oligarchy in all its economic and social dimensions, but we defeat it thoroughly enough that this generation does not bequeath to its grandchildren the fight our parents and grandparents have left to us.

The framework of “countervailing power” suggests a balance with capital—the tripartite governing structure of the immediate post-WWII era in the U.S. or the advent of robust welfare states in Western Europe. We know labor history is full of people who dreamed bigger than just that, and we posit now is a good time to reclaim those bigger dreams, the dreams that right-wing repression, neoliberal defeat, and other constraints have eroded or stripped out of movements as they often are now. That, too, is necessary and also insufficient.

In fact, Red for Ed exemplifies the kind of anti-oligarchic, pro-democracy effort Andrias and Sachs seem to have in mind and offered visionary, feminist ideas of freedom and community we’re talking about. Nonetheless, so far neither is powerful enough: In West Virginia, as in most U.S. states, judiciary and cultural contexts favor the social and political agenda of the oligarchy.

Just three years after Red for Ed, the West Virginia legislature passed a law, the Hope Scholarship, which transforms public education funding into private scholarship accounts for parents to use to homeschool or send their children to private schools. That’s the power of policy feedback loops: Right-wing policy both depends on and creates reinforcing identities far outside the direct implementation of the policy itself, producing a culture that incubates and powers such policies. But the Hawaii example offers us another path: It shows that belonging—not just “material gain” in the narrow sense—is required to make a compelling case for race traitorship and that following the leadership of people of color and immigrants can effectively, over generations, build a durable identity basis to resist the siren song of the white Christian nationalist right.

Three things make right-wing feedback loops effective: a compelling vision for the future they are implementing, a receptive culture fostered by a full suite of institutions custom-built or re-engineered for this purpose, and the ease of building on a political economy designed for division and exploitation at least as far back as 1492.

There’s not much we can do about the last advantage, but progressives can, and must, do much better on the first two. History offers many examples of organizations that co-created with their members expansive, ambitious ideas for the future as well as cultures in which people experienced some version of that freedom, however limited or incomplete.

What we’ve seen and heard as organizers is that members’ visions are both more concrete and more expansive than higher wages or generic ideas about power-sharing. They are, instead, full of emotion, sensory detail, and imagination about how we might be free as individuals, as communities, and as residents of this single planet. In our experience as organizers, people—working people, people of color, queer people—have exciting ideas and dreams about what our housing, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and our world might smell, taste, and feel like as well as how it might be structured.

As Lauren Jacobs and George Goehl write in their essay in this series, “When we knock on someone’s door, people aren’t moved by the legal process; they’re moved by our vision and our plan to win. They stay in the fight because of the community they build, and the joy and power and purpose they feel.”

While our current progressive civil society formations may not be ideally tooled to receive the offering, grassroots members bring a radical imagination and sophisticated analysis. From that basis, our own infrastructure and our relationships—both what we have and what we need—will become more evident and more useful, allowing us to align without demanding top-down, command-and-control discipline that is neither desirable nor possible.

It’s the relationships built in developing the vision that will bring individuals into organizations and power our fight with the oligarchs. In our own experience as organizers, we find working people are not, in general, excited to join efforts to countervail. They are drawn to efforts to get free—that is, to prevail—and understand countervailing to be a necessary, if insufficient, first step.

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