Simple Statements about Major Social Changes

Santa Fe    We always say that the most important thing about organizing is listening carefully.  That’s how we learn.

We were with friends and comrades having a good visit over an excellent home grilled meal and the conversation drifted, as it always should, to the state of play in social change and building power for the powerless.  Drummond Pike, founder and former head of the Tides Foundation and its family of organizations, who has a lifetime and legacy of supporting a catalogue of progressive efforts in myriad fields of endeavor, weighed in a one point with a summary statement as pithy as it was profound on this question of our progress.  He simply stated that progressive efforts to reform economic actors had been successful in “impacting the product, but had failed to impact capital.”

The real target of his remarks, supported quickly by others, was a reflection on the success – and failures – of the environmental movement and its pillar organizations.  The ability to mobilize consumers to eschew products with detrimental impacts on health and the environment has repeatedly delivered significant victories against obstinate corporations.  The success at protecting old growth forests came up quickly in the conversation with the work of the Rainforest Action Network (RAIN) being an outstanding example.

Of course, like any sweeping generalization, there are reality gaps.  The progress in ridding toxins like lead from soil and drinking water where there is no single dominant target, and even some like the paint companies have been able to successfully escape liability is one example.  Another is the still unfinished and often unengaged fight to rid carcinogenic elements diffused in some many products, including the impunity of the tobacco and alcohol industries, where even the settlements that might be termed victories, have not been successfully translated sufficiently into public health and consumer protections.

The list is a long one, but the larger point is Pike’s comment on the rapaciousness of capital that escapes any accountability and offers no excuses in its quest for maximization for short term gains and self-interest.  We have had some success in forcing accountability on some investments by institutional capital as represented by banks, but little in other areas.  At best we are always trying to catch up, even as inequity and wealth accumulation gallops forward with foreseeable and tragic consequences.

The crisis of unfettered capital has gotten so critical that recently large mutual funds like Vanguard and others are calling for minimum representation of women on boards of directors and threatening to require commitments to social responsibility as a prerequisite to their investments.  Will that make a difference?  Of course not, it’s cosmetic, but it’s symptomatic of the crisis that even the thieves are calling for some honor.