We Know Who Stole the Economy—National People’s Action Moves to Take It Back

"Listen to and work with your base to create a shared, big-picture narrative."
Antideportation event. Photo by NPA.

An event the NPA participated in about the rights of immigrants. Photo by NPA / Flickr.

There are a great many civil society organizations doing good work in service to nature, justice, and democracy. Few, however, demonstrate the strategic sophistication of National People's Action (NPA). The NPA, which was founded in 1972, is an informal association of more than 200 grassroots organizations mostly representing working-class families. The NPA provides a place for these groups to work together to advance economic and racial justice.

The NPA concludes that the rules currently in place empower the institutions of a 1% percent economy.

I highly recommend the NPA's two reports, "Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy" and "Creating a Long-Term Agenda for Change: A Case History of National People's Action." The latter is filled with lessons from their 5-year planning process, which will be relevant to other organizations committed to advancing a just, sustainable, and democratic new economy.

What most caught my attention is the clarity with which the NPA focuses on changing the rules that hold in place an economic system that assures continued global-scale environmental, social, and political failure. These are six vital lessons that caught my attention in reading these two reports.

1. Listen to and work with your base to create a shared, big-picture narrative that names the problem and its cause, envisions the desired future, and provides a strategic frame within which to identify and prioritize individual campaigns that serve as steppingstones toward that future.

The NPA narrative identifies an economic system that empowers financial markets and corporations to concentrate financial power without limit as a primary source of environmental, social, and political failure. It goes on to envision the institutions of a new economic system designed to maintain a just distribution of wealth and provide all people with the opportunity to achieve a secure and meaningful livelihood.

The analysis and vision combine to frame a strategic focus that aligns NPA's previously disparate housing, banking, workers' rights, immigrants' rights, health, and education campaigns behind a unifying objective. Within this frame, NPA members now choose from among potential tactical initiatives those that have the greatest potential to systematically weaken corporate power and strengthen people power.

2. Focus attention on eliminating and replacing rules and institutions that encourage and reward behavior detrimental to the well-being of people and Earth rather than attempting to limit the damage through efforts to punish individual corporations and persons who engage in unethical behavior in response to the norms and rewards of a defective system.

The NPA concluded that the rules currently in place empower the institutions of a 1% economy that by design systematically and consistently transfers wealth and power from the 99% to the 1%. They are now clear that this system will generate increasing environmental destruction, inequality, and political corruption for as long as it remains in place.

Attempting to get a different outcome by disciplining or removing "bad apples" is akin to a game of whack-a-mole. Concerted citizen resistance may slow the damage, but different outcomes require a different system supported by different rules. Citizen action must address system change through rule change.

3. Take a long-term perspective, expose the failed system as the consequence of intentional choices, and articulate a clear long-term strategic frame that offers ample scope for tactical flexibility.

Inviting people to think 40 years into the future helps them look beyond the current political morass.

The NPA planning frame begins with the memo that Supreme Court Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell sent to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 23, 1971, in which he outlined a long-term agenda to strengthen corporate power at the expense of people and democracy. For more than 40 years, corporate interests have been advancing that agenda through multiple pathways, including deregulation, privatization, redistribution of wealth through tax policy, strengthening corporate control of education, and packing courts with judges indoctrinated in free market ideology.

Members of the NPA then looked ahead 40 years to envision a new economy, identify pathways to that economy, and select and plan individual campaigns chosen as steppingstones on an inherently long and winding path to the envisioned future.

4. Advance critical rule changes through an inside/outside strategy that combines electoral action, direct engagement with public policy makers, and high visibility street protests.

The NPA is clear that its strategic role centers on political action to change the rules of the game in support of authentic democracy and a just and sustainable 100% economy by shifting power from the institutions of the 1% economy to real people who have a living stake in place-based communities in which they live and work.

The NPA recognizes that electing friendly officials is important, but not sufficient. There must be consistent inside and outside pressure to maintain the commitment of both elected and appointed officials to rule changes that advance the envisioned long-term power shift in the face of well-funded and well-organized corporate opposition.

5. Recognize and confront the explicit and implicit use of race by corporate interests to create and maintain divisions among those who might otherwise mobilize effective opposition to corporate rule.

The NPA recognizes that cultivating division and mistrust—particularly racial division and mistrust—is a favored means used by moneyed interests to block the formation of a broad-based political alliance of sufficient power to thwart their 1% agenda. People of color are the hardest hit by that agenda and therefore have the greatest natural interest in deep system change.

NPA thus gives priority to the issues of communities of color and looks to them as the front line of resistance and action in the drive to create a just and sustainable new economy that works for all.

6. Form long-term alliances with organizations that share the long-term vision.

The NPA recognizes that the deep change required to build a just and sustainable society depends on a broad-based social movement comprised of many players with complementary agendas and a broadly shared vision of possibility. They thus seek deep and enduring relationships with like-minded organizations and have a conscious commitment to share the credit, share the podium, and share the leadership.

Of these six lessons, perhaps the most exceptional and difficult is the first: "Listen to and work with your base to create a shared, big-picture narrative." The NPA membership is comprised of ordinary people from all walks of life. It includes family farmers, public housing residents, employed and unemployed wage laborers, citizens of every generation, and newly arrived immigrants—generally not the sort of folks we would turn to for expert policy analysis and long-term planning advice.

Yet NPA developed a process for engaging some 500 of its members in a long-term planning process. As George Goehl, NPA's executive director, and Bree Carlson, director of NPA's Structural Racism Program spelled out for YES! Magazine, it proved to be a brilliant stroke.

  • First, people who experience the reality of economic system failure and have no stake in perpetuating failed economic theories often have a far more real and practical sense of the nature and source of economic failure than the folks society is most inclined to turn to for expert advice on economic policy.
  • Second, inviting people to think 40 years into the future helps them look beyond the current political morass and engage a more expansive sense of possibility.
  • Third, those who participate in the development of a plan are the most likely to bring a high level of understanding and enthusiasm to its implementation.

Progressive organizations commonly focus on protesting and demanding corrective action to lessen the harms and injustices of a failed economic system. Changing the system is far more difficult and takes far more time, but it is what we must ultimately do.

The lessons of the NPA experience light a path to building a formidable progressive social movement with sufficient political force to replace the institutions of the 1% economy we have with the institutions of the 100% economy we envision and must now create.