Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s summer 2023 issue, “Movement Economies: Making Our Vision a Collective Reality.”
This conversation with Manuel Pastor, distinguished professor of sociology and American studies & ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and NPQ’s Steve Dubb and Rithika Ramamurthy, explores themes regarding social movements and economics that Manuel Pastor writes about in Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter, coauthored by Chris Benner and published in 2021. 1
Steve Dubb: Could you talk about your background and how you came to focus on the study of social movements and economics?
Manuel Pastor: I graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with two degrees—one in creative writing and one in economics. And I couldn’t figure out which path would be the most powerful for changing the world. A good story, a good novel, a good narrative can really reframe things. So that was one path that was available.
The second was economics. I chose economics because I come from a working-class Latino family. I’d always been motivated around social justice and social change, and I found that when I was taking economics, economists consistently said, “Well, that’s a nice thing that you might believe in justice, but it’s probably bad for the economy.” And I thought, “Well, either they’re right and my whole life has no meaning, or they’re wrong and I might be able to help forge a different kind of economics that would be closer to the lived experience and aspirations of working-class communities, communities of color, communities that are often marginalized.”
So, with great aplomb, I went and got a PhD at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a radical political economy program, because I thought learning Marxist economics is always a path to financial success. While there, I was part of the Center for Popular Economics, which does popular economics education with trade union folks and community members.
I went from there to teach at Occidental College. And in the latter part of the 1980s, I got involved in a campaign in California to raise the minimum wage. I was asked to come in and do a little bit of research about why raising the minimum wage would not be bad for the economy, which is what most economists at the time were saying. A kind of profound learning happened for me along the way. We won the increase, 2 and I would like to think that my research, long before Card and Krueger’s Myth and Measurement, 3 actually helped to win the day.
But what really helped win the day was that local leaders, after hearing a little bit about what happened when you raised the minimum wage, decided that what they ought to do was to hit the barricades and persuade parts of the business community—particularly places where low-income workers would spend their money—to support an increase in the minimum wage. They organized a very interesting shop-in at a store that was owned by the head of the grocery store association.
He wouldn’t come out in favor of an increase in the minimum wage, and they said, “Okay, well, we’re going to shop at your store tomorrow.” And he said, “Well, why is that a threat?” And the next day—people still remember this who are organizers in South Los Angeles and of a certain age—people showed up at the store, and they shopped with pennies. If you’ve ever seen anybody shop with pennies, it’s a guaranteed strategy to completely tie up all the lines and freeze the business. And quite quickly, the head of the grocery store association came out in favor of an increase to the minimum wage. And what I profoundly realized at that moment was that if the best research in the world is not coupled with community organizing and community power building, it will never change the world.
Rithika Ramamurthy: One theme from your book is that movement actors should talk about our economy rather than the economy. What do you see as the cost of movements failing to do so and treating the economy as an externalized other?
MP: One of the things that I think helps get at that question has to do with the origins of the book. And the origins don’t come from the intellectual meanderings of either coauthor. The book really came out of a set of conversations with movement actors in 2018. That was a gubernatorial election year in California, and it seemed to us that California had an opportunity to define an economic agenda that would be more progressive.
So, Chris Benner, my coauthor, and I convened a set of four conversations with movement actors to ask the question: If there was a progressive economic program that could come out and become part of the debate during the campaign, what should that look like? The thing we heard was that our movement allies were tired of showing up with a laundry list of issues rather than a coherent story that would tie all their issues together into a narrative, a frame, a policy package that could better capture people’s imagination. So, this book is really a response to what movement actors wanted to see, which was a much simpler and compelling narrative.
“When we say ‘our economy,’ we see ourselves in it and we see ourselves as rule makers within it, rather than being subjugated by it.”
Too often the Left sounds like it’s offering the sort of laundry list these organizers sought to go beyond. Van Jones once remarked that when Martin Luther King gave a speech during the March on Washington, it was not titled, “I Have a Bunch of Issues.” It was titled, “I Have a Dream.” 4 A dream can motivate people, a frame can motivate people, in a way that individual issues don’t. So, I think one shortcoming is that often, on the progressive side, we do not have a full story.
Another shortcoming is that we are so steeped ourselves in looking at exploitation that we often buy into the capitalist myth that exploitation is actually the route to economic growth. Our own research has demonstrated to us that those places that are more unequal, more racially segregated, more fragmented, aren’t able to sustain employment growth over time. And you also know in your bones that if you’re part of an organization that exploits people and creates tension, that that organization is not going to thrive.
If hyperexploitation of people and the environment was the recipe to success, Haiti would be the richest country on the planet Earth. And it’s not. So, we need ourselves to shake the equity/prosperity trade-off that the Right has laid out so firmly and that sometimes we buy into.
So why the focus on “our economy”? When we say “the economy,” it makes it sound like a set of rules given out there by God or nature or “the market,” rather than rules we make. When we say “our economy,” we see ourselves in it and we see ourselves as rule makers within it, rather than being subjugated by it.
The book also has a couple of related big messages. Take mutuality. Mutuality is really a key part of our economy. Indeed, even the most successful businesses are built on treating their customers, employees, and suppliers decently to be able to survive in the long run. We have to claim that as a central guiding principle and organize our economy around equity and mutuality.
A third observation is, some people do benefit from the current economic arrangements. And to change that, we need to have strong, healthy, intersectoral social movements that can tip the balance of power. Just as markets make us selfish, movements make us mutual. They teach us the habits of building bridges, they teach us the habits of seeing the other, and they teach us the habits of seeing the “us.”
SD: I want to follow up on the mutuality piece you were just talking about. You’ve written many books, but I feel like your focus on economics rooted in mutuality and solidarity is new. So, could you share more on the thought process behind lifting that up? Also, one of the things you talk about concerns the limits of government and how just having the state be the solution isn’t always the best course. So, please elaborate on that a little bit.
MP: If you ask questions of conservatives, the answer is always the market. Not enough housing? Let the market do it. Racial discrimination? The market will compete it away. Even with greenhouse gas emissions, which is clearly a market failure, conservatives will say the best approach is to do cap-and-trade and let the market take care of it.
It’s remarkably ideologically consistent despite—for example, on the topic of racial discrimination—400 to 500 years of structural racism might’ve convinced you the market’s not working that well. But it’s remarkably consistent.
Too often, the Left’s answer is “the government” to those questions. And there’s a role for the government in tackling housing, certainly in dealing with the environment, and certainly ending or trying to end racial discrimination in labor, housing markets, and other means of exchange.
What we’re trying to talk about in the book is that, really, the answer each time should be that we need to rely on us. We need to rely on the community that we build together.
“We’ve created a system that focuses so much on self-interest, it doesn’t figure out how to reward mutuality.”
Now, part of the reason for that is—particularly for communities of color—while promises of the market ring hollow, so too do promises of the government. This is the same government that built a Social Security system that left out Black and Latinx folks by excluding domestic and farm workers. 5 Housing assistance was targeted toward middle-class White homeowners rather than renters of color, et cetera. 6 And the clearest manifestation of this pattern of racial targeting and racial exclusion is through the way many people directly experience the government—policing. So, just saying the government is going to take care of it, we think, rings a little bit hollow.
So, we propose this idea of turning toward each other. What can we build together in terms of alternative enterprises? Like co-ops.
How do we turn to each other to build alternatives? How do we turn to each other to build movements? And I think, perhaps a little bit controversially in our case, we’re saying that actually there are a number of capitalist enterprises that are built far more on mutuality than anyone recognizes—including those firms themselves. And so, we try to lift that up. I think that’s part of the journey.
The other part of the journey was realizing, if you go back to the fundamental roots of most economics, it’s assumed really that people are self-interested, and that life is nasty, brutish, and short. And in this Hobbesian world, conservatives think that the market will help to coordinate that self-interest to a blissful outcome. Folks more on the liberal or progressive side often think that the state needs to restrain those selfish impulses. And our third position is: Actually, people act out of mutuality as much as they act out of self-interest, but we’ve created a system that focuses so much on self-interest, it doesn’t figure out how to reward mutuality. You can reward mutuality by supporting alternative enterprises, community land trusts, worker co-ops, and other solidarity economy activities—and through supporting community labor organizing to assert workers’ rights. Though, obviously, the government is one instrument of our mutuality. We’re not antigovernment. We’re just saying that that’s the means, not the end.
And a final thing is, how do we reward, particularly in the short or medium run, those businesses that are doing a little bit better, that are more on a high road? And how do we use our power as consumers and as organizers to steer our dollars in the direction of what we need?
RR: In your book, you wrote that, “we have reached a point where our fundamental structures are driving unprecedented inequality, social divisions, and ecological destruction.” 7 And you add that movements are not building the political narratives, policy alternatives, and organizing vehicles needed to meet the moment. Could you elaborate on what steps movements can and should take to close this gap?
MP: I will speak from my own experience with the caution that, far be it for me to be the one full of pronouncements in a world in which there are tremendous, healthy debates about what shape our movements should take.
But I’ve been talking a lot with my colleague, Angela Glover Blackwell, with whom I wrote a book, too. 8 And one thing that we’ve been landing on—mostly her thoughts, credit where credit is due—is that the United States is facing three simultaneous crises.
One is a crisis of democracy, really illustrated by the January 6 attack on the Capitol. But behind that is the changing demography of the country and the racist reaction to the possibility of becoming a true multiracial democracy. So, that’s one crisis; it’s a crisis of democratic institutions, but beneath it is a crisis of structural racism and its appeal as the country changes.
The second is the economic crisis, in a couple of dimensions. This includes the stark inequalities that continue to be exacerbated over time. These both feed into the fears of the changing demography of the country but also lead us to not tackle the underlying balance of power that’s causing this inequality and our economic dysfunction.
The third is the state of our social movements and whether they’re sufficiently strong, and at scale, to tackle the political crisis of democracy and the economic crisis of inequality. I don’t want to diss our movements; they’ve taken a long time to get built and they are doing amazing things. But we are having all sorts of divisions within our own movements.
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I’m going to spend a moment talking about that. During the Great Depression and the sort of New Deal readjustment of relationships in the United States, a strong labor movement was critical to that. During the tackling of American apartheid—much of which persists, but it was in its worst form in the ’50s and ’60s—it was a strong and vibrant civil rights movement that tackled the fundamental issues of democracy and was turning its attention to big issues of economic inequality.
“One of the things I think about is that there’s a lot of thought about how the politics of alternatives, the politics of resistance, and the politics of governing power are somehow counterposed, instead of seeing how all those three things relate together to make a change.”
So, I think experience suggests that to really achieve change, we need to be thinking about movements at scale. The other thing that I would say—and again, I feel like I’m a bit of an intellectual sponge, borrowing from people, in this case from a young colleague named Ashley Thomas 9: Within our movements, there are different North Stars. One is the formation of alternatives. So, how do we create in this economic space co-ops, community land trusts, collaborations of co-ops? What a lot of people refer to as the solidarity economy. That’s one North Star.
Another North Star is simply disruption and resistance. That is, that the system is broken, that it needs to be challenged by things like the Occupy movement, which didn’t really have a plan but definitely put a monkey wrench into what was going on at the time and raised consciousness around the 99 percent.
And then there is a third North Star, which is governing power. And governing power is about how do you build strong enough coalitions—popular fronts, narratives, policy packages—that allow you to get enough of the power that exists in our society to be able to make meaningful change in people’s lives and deliver relief in a time frame of, say, five to twenty years?
If you think about the crisis of climate change, unless we turn the ship right now, in the next ten to twenty years, we’re heading towards disaster. One of the things I think about is that there’s a lot of thought about how the politics of alternatives, the politics of resistance, and the politics of governing power are somehow counterposed, instead of seeing how all those three things relate together to make a change. So, I think part of creating healthy movements is being unafraid of scale and understanding that there’s not just one path.
SD: What do you see as key pathways to build on the achievements of folks in the solidarity economy movement, while broadening the scope of the movement to achieve the necessary scale for transformation?
MP: I’m struck by the work of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has supported cooperatives of domestic workers, which has supported organizing people to increase their wages, which has tried also to change government policy, and which has also just tried to highlight which employers might be doing it a little bit better, to try to drive economic action to them. So, I think those are ways in which these things can and should be combined.
I think one of the challenges, however, is the immediacy of the issues and the need for scale. Take a concrete problem that’s affecting so many of our urban communities: housing affordability, gentrification, and displacement. We need community land trusts. We need tenants’ unions and organizing for their rights. We need communities organizing for a right to stay and not be displaced, either as renters or as owners. We need government to be creative about tenant protections. We just put into place in Los Angeles a lot of COVID-era protections that are now being made more permanent.
So, we need government action, and government assistance to build more housing. But if you think about the scale of the problem, we’re not going to get there in the next five to ten years without some of the housing developers that know how to do affordable housing. So, how do you make sure that they’re somehow in the game as well? And I think that’s the mix. I realize that that’s not a mix that’s everyone’s political cup of tea, but it’s a mix we’re trying to put into the progressive toolkit.
One last piece involves corporations. Firms spend a lot of time thinking about how to divide workers against workers, communities against communities. And we spend a lot less time thinking about how to divide business against business and create openings for alternatives. If you think about the mechanism that a lot of communities have used—community benefits agreements—these basically say you can get a faster track on developing if you guarantee affordable housing, permanent jobs, job training programs, parks, and so on. At least those community benefits agreements that come out of genuine community organizing wind up getting some benefit and dividing some businesses against other businesses.
RR: It seems clear that neoliberalism isn’t working. It’s been the dominant economic policy paradigm in the past 40 years, and it’s fraying, but what will replace it remains uncertain. In your book, you write about how establishing a new paradigm requires making a head case of facts, a heart case of feelings, and a social movement or force. Where are our movements today in these three areas?
MP: We do talk about facts, feelings, and force. I’m one of a lot of economists who sort of gave up on the economics profession because it felt like they were ignoring facts around basic matters like the impact of raising the minimum wage. Or think about neoliberal financial theory, which suggests that markets can perfectly anticipate the future and build that into price signals.
Now, how you can sustain that viewpoint after a global debt crisis, a savings and loan crisis, and a financial meltdown in 2008? You have to be ideologically marooned to have facts not move you. But that’s been a lot of the economics profession. One interesting development is there’s a younger generation of economists who are much more tied to the facts and what they actually tell us about inequality, the minimum wage, and financial systems. And I think that’s a big opening. There’s a younger generation, too, that’s far more concerned with inequality generally. And racial and gender inequality. That’s a big opening. Facts are important.
Feelings is what the book is mostly about, which is: What’s the narrative? And I always say when I speak about this book, if after hearing us speak, you never say “the economy” again, I’ve done my work. Because I just want us to own our economy. We are in it. It should serve us. The rules should benefit all of us. If I convince people when they make an argument for equity, they should talk about it not just in terms of fairness and inclusion but in terms of prosperity and productivity, I feel like I’ve more than won the argument.
I also hope we convince well-meaning technocrats who believe that “if we put out another white paper criticizing inequality, maybe the world will change.” It’s obvious that there are lots of good ideas that never happen because they’re not tied to movements. And there are lots of bad ideas that become public policy because they’re tied to power. If I could convince those people that we should never think of economics apart from political economy, we should never think about policy change separate from thinking about movement building, my task will be done.
SD: In the past, as you write about in the book, movements for economic justice have often underplayed the need to address structural racism. And at the same time, sometimes racial justice movements have fallen short in addressing class inequality. Where do you see opportunity to effectively address both the class and racism aspects of racial capitalism?
MP: So, an anecdote from the book process: If you recall, the book came out of a set of conversations with movement leaders. So, when we completed our first draft, we sent it to two places: our publisher and a bunch of movement people. And the movement people raised a lot of interesting concerns. By the way, the biggest concern that they raised was that we should be more critical of social movements. They said we were being kind of celebratory, but there were really lots of shortcomings, and we should try to bring them more into the book and into the conversation for an honest examination. Interesting observation.
“If you ignore race and racism, it’s going to come back up. Because it’s in the air, in the country’s DNA, and it will become part of what divides groups.”
One of the big observations that came back from our editor at the press was, “Wow, you guys are talking way too much about race for a book that’s about the economy, and you should downplay it a little bit more.” So, Chris and I decided that rather than downplaying it, we would amp it up. Because, clearly, if the editor hadn’t been able to get why structural racism was such an important part of the story, we hadn’t been writing about it effectively enough.
So, the book is even more injected with a racial justice analysis than its first draft was. Now, why do we think that’s important? Because this capitalist economy has so much of its origins in the theft of land and labor to amass capital. And those were justified by, sometimes driven by, racism. So how do you tell the story of the emergence of a capitalist economy without that?
Also, if you’re trying to address inequality, it has multiple dimensions. Racial and gender inequality—inequality by ability or disability as well—are things that should be given more of a central place. This has changed, but in the past, many people working on economic justice issues would worry that if you raised issues of racial inequality, you’re going to derail the unity that’s needed to move forward on economic justice.
But our view is different, which is that you can take two paths. You can choose to ignore, or you can choose to inoculate. If you ignore race and racism, it’s going to come back up. Because it’s in the air, in the country’s DNA, and it will become part of what divides groups and prevents them from working on economic common ground. On the other hand, talking about racism explicitly helps develop the muscles where people feel comfortable talking about structural racism—understanding the differences in communities, generational persistence of inequality, and that equity is not about equality but about providing the tools that people need to succeed in a society where they’ve been left behind and kept behind.
So, we just think that you can prevent this by not dancing around it. As I said earlier, I grew up as a working-class Latino. And growing up that way, there certainly were parts of my life that were structured by the fact that I was Latino and the discrimination that my parents or I faced. But a whole lot of our life was formed by the fact that we were working class and disenfranchised for those reasons too. We often think about race as a lived experience, but we forget about class as a lived experience.
For me, being working class, as a cultural experience, meant that I grew up putting a value on work and working hard, putting a value on craft, doing well at your job, and understanding that being a good janitor or a good electrician or a good nurse or a good teacher, it’s all about craft.
And so, in addition to hard work and commitment to craft, a third working-class value is solidarity—that you’re supposed to hang with the other people when they need you. Taking the lived experience of working-class life seriously is, I think, really important to organizing around economic justice.
So, it’s not an either/or situation where you focus on class or race. And it’s also not a kumbaya situation where you give a little lip service to each and hope that conflicts go away. This is a difficult space to work in. It ought to be. If it was easy, someone else would have solved it before us.
SD: You’ve talked often about how social movement organizing in Los Angeles can be traced back, much of it, to the 1992 uprising after the Rodney King verdict. Could you talk about the process, and if there are any specific lessons you would take from that microcosm of Los Angeles that might be applicable in the present?
MP: I would take a lot from that. I’ll lift up three things. The first is that one of the things that the Los Angeles uprisings did was they pointed out the shortcomings of neoliberal urban policy, the shortcomings of deindustrialization, which hit Black Los Angeles harder and earlier than the rest of Los Angeles. As much as the uprisings were an indictment of policing, they were also an indictment of the Left. Because if you have a city that is pissed off enough about its police department and income inequality to burn itself down, and you have not been able to channel that into social change, you can blame everyone else, but you ought to spend a little bit of time looking at your own organizing, and seeing what you need to do differently. I think that the Los Angeles uprising brought a kind of humility to progressive organizers.
Too often on the Left we feel like we’ve got great ideas, but we lament, “How did we wind up with Biden? Why was Obama so timid?” instead of saying, “Maybe we need to do more organizing, maybe we haven’t broken through.” We should ask ourselves why—in a country that is so upset about income inequality, in which there is so much dissatisfaction with racial inequality, in which there’s so much generational anger about the climate disaster—why can’t we do more? So, the first lesson I would take away is a kind of humility and self-examination.
The second lesson is that the unrest was immediately followed by an attack on immigrants with Proposition 187 [passed in 1994] and the attack on affirmative action [codified in Proposition 209, passed in 1996]. And a lot of people got tired of losing and understood what the consequences of losing those ballot measures were. We who are progressives can sometimes feel somewhat righteous about our losses: “At least we were firm in our beliefs and we put up a glorious fight.” And I think one thing that happened in California is that people were like, “Ain’t got the time to lose any longer. Our communities are being devastated. They’re under threat. How do we organize to win? And how do we organize for governing power?”
The third thing I would take away from the Los Angeles experience and, more broadly, the California experience is: How do you scale? And what’s the strategy for scaling over time? A lot of people who are part of the post-unrest discussions, and a lot of groups around the state, are now part of a configuration called the Million Voters Project, which every election helps mobilize nearly a million new and occasional voters, largely of color. That’s enough to swing lots of different ballot issues and other campaigns. That was a really ambitious idea about getting to that scale. I’ve been very impressed by what’s happening in California, but it’s happening in other states as well. I think this local and statewide organizing is very important.
SD: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MP: The only thing I’ll add is that we didn’t speak a lot about climate. And I think that one thing that we are trying to shift in the book as well is: How do we bring a spirit of mutuality to addressing our planet and our climate? Even when people of goodwill talk about addressing climate change, it’s almost as though the planet is something separate from us. So, how do we take this broader vision of solidarity and talk about solidarity with our planet, as well as solidarity with each other, and forge a more inclusive and sustainable future?
- Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor, Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2021).
- Jess Bravin, “‘88 Minimum Wage Increase Is Welcomed by Employees,” Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-01-24-me-37942-story.html.
- David Card and Alan Krueger, Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage, rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).
- Chris Corrigan, “Keynote from Van Jones,” ChrisCorrigan.com (blog), November 8, 2007, www.chriscorrigan.com/parkinglot/keynote-from-van-jones.
- Derrick Johnson, “Viewing Social Security Through The Civil Rights Lens,” The Crisis, August 14, 2020, naacp.org/articles/viewing-social-security-through-civil-rights-lens.
- Josh Silver, “Undoing Structural Racism: The Need for Systemic Change in Housing Policy,” NPQ, August 4, 2021, nonprofitquarterly.org/undoing-structural-racism-the-need-for-systemic-change-in-housing-policy.
- Benner and Pastor, Solidarity Economics, 2.
- See Angela Glover Blackwell, Stewart Kwoh, and Manuel Pastor, Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002; rev. ed. 2020).
- For background on the work of Ashley Thomas, see Ashley K. Thomas, “Restorative Justice for Our Movement,” Race Forward, 2022, facingrace.raceforward.org/speaker/ashley-thomas.