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Collective Action Over Political Power

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For the inaugural CC, the Millennial Fellows explore how their personal perspectives influence the policies they're interested in. 

In his 1983 book Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, political theorist Cedric Robinson examines the formation of modern capitalism in Europe, elucidating the particular identities, social movements, and societal structures that shaped basic market forces. “European civilization is not the product of capitalism,” he writes; “on the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of it’s appearance.” Robinson’s observation rests at the core of my approach to economic policy, an approach largely informed by both the political economy of southeast Michigan - my home - and its residents who have organized on the basis of economic justice.

For decades, economic welfare has ranked as the primary policy concern for many Michigan residents. Unfortunately, the demand for policy intervention to confront unemployment, poverty, and wage stagnation has been met with an insufficient set of solutions. Residents continue to experience the human cost of downsizing, outsourcing, federal and state cutbacks, and automation of industry. Attempts to address economic welfare - such as vocation programs, Community Development Corporations, and basic welfare provisions - have often been critically underfunded, unevenly distributed, or implemented within too narrow of a context.

As an alternative to successful economic policy, community groups continually engage in collective action for political power, in hopes that a more active, innovative government can aid in the struggle for economic reform. Their work indicates the importance of viewing economics not only through a lense of efficiency, but of power as well, with markets existing as fundamental spaces of political contest. Yet such an orientation conflicts with the predominance of neoliberal economic thought, which invokes an explanatory power that too often naturalizes conditions of inequality, poverty, and discrimination in the labor and housing market. Under this paradigm, privatization, financialization, and upwards redistribution of wealth operate as the primary, if not only, means of government oversight over the economy. As the previous institutional frameworks that upheld market conditions throughout the 20th century are unraveled, neoliberal economic policy pushes historical analysis of structural market failures to the periphery.

Instead of following this tradition, I believe policy analysts should complicate economic policy in at least three ways. First, policy research must investigate hierarchies of civic status as inextricable factors of economic activity. Race, gender, citizenship status, and other modes of social identification have always played a role in determining economic order, and will continue to do so in dynamic and evolving ways. How can we configure economic policies attentive to this realization, and move beyond causal explanations of discrimination (or worse, blind ignorance) in an analysis of economic welfare and opportunity?

Second, by framing markets as political institutions, the structures of markets themselves must be scrutinized for abuse of market power. Factors such as price, output, and procurement are not solely efficient outcomes of a rational economy: they are often determined through a pursuit of market power at the potential cost of both consumer and producer welfare. The risk of market concentration obligates government to establish industry frameworks, playing the role of arbiter amongst a network of interests.

Finally, policymakers must take seriously the political responses that localized, impacted groups have posited in response to rising economic inequality, and learn from their insights and initiatives. Beyond a superficial commitment to participatory policymaking, analysts should consider building their research around alternative theoretical approaches to development that have emerged in resistance to dominant economic paradigms.

Michigan continues to be an important site of conflict over economic policy. For example, community activists and scholars have demonstrated how the tax foreclosure process in Wayne County, Mich. has exacerbated racial and economic inequality in the region, challenging specific mechanisms such as the tax foreclosure auction and uneven implementation of water shutoffs. Their work has linked tax-foreclosures to a flurry of private development in Detroit, with approximately one third of Detroit tax-foreclosed homes in the auction purchased by speculative developers. Simultaneously, large-scale real estate developers have used a “dereliction by design” strategy to drive down land value in hopes of cornering Detroit’s real estate market, indicating a need for increased regulation and consumer protections from dominant market actors.

In response to these processes, policy alternatives such as comprehensive land-banking and a moratorium on tax-foreclosures have emerged. These ideas suggest a value of homes beyond market listings, taking into account how foreclosures affect the long-term health of residential neighborhoods. Meanwhile, political struggles over evictions, school closures, and various forms of displacement continue. This work takes place as part of a lineage of resistance to an unjust, racialized economic order in Detroit, from the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement’s engagement with workplace racism in the 1960s to the Detroit Alliance for a Rational Economy’s reindustrialization agenda of the 1980s, all of which offer lessons to policy analysts.

As discussions of economic reform intensify across the country, the potential for once again altering the national economic framework increases. In entering this conversation, policy analysts would do well to operate under a conception of political economy, keeping in mind these three points. Through the process of thinking outside the conventions of public policy, the basis for a more politically just economic order can be built.