A Political Economy Research Agenda:
From Theory to Practice
Drafted by Fred Block and Karl Klare
November 28, 2023
The Center for Engaged Scholarship provides dissertation support to graduate students in the social sciences and history whose work aspires to contribute to struggles for economic, social, racial, sexual, and environmental justice. This is the first in a series of research agendas that we plan to offer over the next few years as an effort to encourage scholars to pursue projects that could help build the kind of powerful social movements that are needed to transform this society. We welcome conversation and criticism that will help modify and strengthen this agenda.
We also want applicants for our fellowship to know that each application will be reviewed on its individual merits. Applications for research that fit with this or subsequent agendas have no more chance of being rated highly by our reviewers than any other application.
The Center for Engaged Scholarship was created to support scholarship that can help create a more just, more democratic, more equal, and more environmentally sustainable society. We believe there is a need for radical and fundamental social transformation, in the U.S. and around the world. We encourage scholarship that recognizes the centrality of oppositional social movements to this goal. In our reading of history, successful movements of the past involve learning processes to which intellectuals, activists, and rank and file participants were all indispensable. We believe that if social scientists and historians ally themselves with oppositional social movements and ask the right questions, they can become valuable participants in those transformative struggles.
Our critique of the existing society has eight equally critical and interconnected elements. Change is needed in all of these dimensions; we list them in random order. First, our society continues to fall short of achieving democratic governance. Giant corporations and the very wealthy exert disproportionate power, racial hierarchies, restrictions on voting rights, gerrymandering, the filibuster, the profoundly anti-democratic structure of the U.S. Senate and Electoral College, and a reactionary Supreme Court all work to undermine popular sovereignty. Giant corporations and very wealthy individuals exert disproportionate power. Second, the current structure of the economy distributes a wildly uneven share of income and wealth to the top 1% of households. This further distorts governance, intensifies conflicts between population groups, and leaves large segments of the population without adequate housing, safe communities, access to health care, and economic opportunity. Third, stubborn and systemic racial hierarchies dating back to the systematic dispossession of indigenous communities and slavery continue to marginalize communities of color. Racialized policing, mass incarceration, the demonization of immigrants, white nationalist movements, and the society’s unwillingness to limit access to lethal weaponry subvert the promise of democracy.
Fourth, rapidly changing structures of economic activity and work organization have drastically undermined the once countervailing power and solidarities of working people. Fifth, for half a century, conservative political forces have waged war on the social safety net, further exposing marginalized populations to vulnerability, deprivation, and poverty.
Sixth, our society still fails to provide full citizenship rights to women and sexual minorities including LGBTQ individuals. The paradigmatic instance of this is the continuing campaign to limit and restrict reproductive freedom, but continuing discrimination in other areas of social life persist for women and sexual minorities, as in the cruel campaign against trans youth. The resulting inequalities are particularly egregious and dangerous as they intersect with racial hierarchies. Seventh, despite some areas of improvement, the drive to expand economic output has produced widespread ecological destruction, climate change, and the disappearance of natural diversity. Moreover, environmental degradation has been particularly severe in communities of Black, Latino, and Native peoples. Finally, the U.S. has continued to pursue a highly militarized foreign policy that is frequently allied with oligarchic regimes that give full reign to abuses by U.S.-based corporations and repress movements for greater social justice and equality. This foreign policy, combined with the impacts of climate change has impoverished millions across Central and Latin America producing flows of refugees at the U.S. border whose presence fuels white supremacist politics.
None of these institutional failures can be quickly or easily solved. On the contrary, social movements addressing each of these issue areas have struggled for generations, sometimes winning victories only to experience new, painful reversals. However, alongside the extraordinary dangers of the current moment of 2023, extraordinary opportunities appear for movements seeking transformation. The risks and opportunities alike spring from the destructive neoliberal (or “market fundamentalist”) policies that reigned in the U.S. from the election of Ronald Reagan to the seemingly implausible administration of Donald Trump. Neoliberalism concentrated wealth in the hands of the 1% and left the rest of the population fighting over crumbs. This resulted in deepening political divisions that have weakened the centrist consensus that had long dominated U.S. politics.
On the one side, authoritarian and white supremacist forces have been strengthened, culminating in a frontal assault on democracy in the January 6th, 2021, insurrection. We cannot discount the possibility that those forces will succeed in seizing power at some point in the years ahead either through elections or other means. A victory by authoritarian forces would inevitably exacerbate all eight institutional failures described above.
Yet on the other side, the political constituencies that recognize the need for radical transformation of U.S. politics are larger than they have been for many decades. The excitement created by Bernie Sanders’ two Presidential campaigns, the massive demonstrations in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, the outrage over the Supreme Court’s reactionary decisions, the existential threat of climate change, the recurring disasters due to gun violence, and the disillusionment of millions of young people struggling with student debt, unaffordable housing, and limited mobility opportunities have nudged significant segments of the Democratic Party to abandon their customary centrist caution. Can these multiple sources of anger and discontent be forged into a powerful majoritarian coalition that transforms the structures that until now have kept us from realizing the promise of democracy and equality for all?
This period of crisis and change calls upon scholars to reconsider our priorities and research agendas. In calmer periods, scholars have the luxury to follow their own curiosity in the hope that it will lead to new insights and new ideas. Times such as the present lend an urgency to pursuing scholarship that can assist social actors to find their way through crisis and turmoil toward something better. We hope the research agenda outlined here addresses that critical priority.
Our aim is to generate knowledge and understanding about potential transition paths from the status quo to a more just, inclusive, egalitarian, and environmentally sustainable social order. The challenge is to create, nurture, and sustain opposition movements at local, national, and global levels, and to do so in an institutional context that is stacked against radical transformation. While we recognize that the primary barriers to fundamental change are political and cultural, we believe that conceptual- and knowledge-deficits present additional obstacles and that engaged social research can make a contribution toward developing effective strategies to promote social change. We envision a research program dedicated to identifying factors that might facilitate large scale political mobilization, evaluating strategies for effectuating change in the political economy, and analyzing social movements’ successes and failures in pushing the needle toward fundamental transformation.
At least three factors have hindered social research of this kind. There is first the profoundly destructive hegemony of neoliberal and market-fundamentalist ideas in the public policy space for the past 40 years. We do not suggest that neoliberalism is a coherent and unified doctrine or policy paradigm. Quite the opposite, it is a pastiche of different, sometimes contradictory policy instincts and strategies held together by elite self-interest and wrapped in a rhetorical commitment to markets and disdain for government. The agendas of neoliberal politicians and gurus vary considerably from nation to nation and from one decade to the next. In seeming contradiction to their professed hostility to governmental action, neoliberal-inspired initiatives consistently mobilize state resources and state coercion to advance powerful business interests. For these reasons among others, we do not believe that some singular alternative to neoliberalism is waiting to be discovered and implemented by progressive forces.
Second, political barriers typically block the sort of policy experimentation that would provide the experiential basis for the type of social research we are looking for. Imagining and refining strategies for social transformation requires bold experimentation over a long time-frame – experiments that can be launched only within the give-and-take of democratic politics. This experimentation would provide a basis to gain knowledge about what works and does not work, and what is or is not politically, economically, and environmentally sustainable. We possess a rich repertoire of policy ideas capable of generating more dynamic, egalitarian, and sustainable economies at national and global levels. We know, for example, that developmental states can play a successful role in nurturing new industries, expanding employment opportunities, and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. We know that cash transfers and other social welfare measures can enhance social inclusion and reduce economic insecurity. Ample evidence suggests that tax, antitrust, and labor law reform could lead to significant compression of income and wealth inequality. We have interesting models of how a restructured financial system could facilitate inclusive and sustainable economic growth.
Nevertheless, prevailing political conditions across the globe have blocked the type of innovation and experimentation that would permit us to gain a deeper understanding of transition paths. Rules and institutions of the global economy punish governments that attempt to deviate from prevailing orthodoxy by credit- rating downgrades, increased financing costs, and crippling capital outflows. Within national politics, those who profited from decades of neoliberal policies to accumulate vast fortunes have gained inordinate influence over politicians and the media. Sadly, a simplified version of neoliberal ideas has widely taken hold as “common sense” among electorates in many countries. “Everyday libertarianism” (“what’s mine is mine”), in toxic mixture with racism, gun ownership, and rage against social programs and taxation has become a powerful political force. Obviously, this political environment is unfriendly to heterodox policy experimentation.
Finally, opposition mobilization, political experimentation, and related social research have been inhibited by a basic conceptual deficit. We lack coherent models or even vague images of how fundamental social transformation might occur in 21st century capitalist societies. Put another way, the principal routes to large scale social, economic, and political transformation explored in the 19th and 20th century seem inadequate to or even implausible in our time.
However, there is a 20th century model of systemic transformation upon which we can build. This is the idea of combining electoral politics and policy advocacy along social-democratic lines (but with much more emphasis on participation and the overcoming of racial, sexual, and other inequalities) with a strategy of sustained, non-violent civil society mobilization at grassroots, national, and global levels. The goal of oppositional activity and movements is not to accumulate enough reforms so that at a certain point the system miraculously “tips” from authoritarian capitalism to egalitarian post-capitalism. Rather, the raison d’être of the “long struggle” is to induce a revolution in political consciousness and political culture that will transform large electorates into historical subjects who desire systemic change in the direction of economic democracy. Civil society campaigns will fight to achieve and implement “non-reformist reforms” which, to the extent they prosper and deliver, will generate new cycles of demand for fundamental change. Non-reformist reform campaigns aim not only to repair injustices, combat social exclusion, and palliate the suffering of the poor and historically victimized, but also to challenge the logics of capitalism and to democratize economic practice; to create contexts and institutions that embody grassroots power; and to open avenues of social practice that “escape” from capitalism through worker and housing cooperatives and similar innovations.
To be sure, no initiative is inherently free from the risks of marginalization, cooptation, or failure. In the oppositional activity we hope for, each project will set the stage for the next struggle, and generate synergies and positive, cumulative effects for parallel activities. The goal is that each fight will continually set the stage for the next struggle; build institutions of popular power and participation; keep pressure on bureaucratic elites; break with or disrupt capitalist logics; challenge racial, gender, sexual, and other illicit hierarchies; build enduring alliances; and transform mass consciousness regarding the possibility as well as desirability of radical social change. In sum, the goal is to imagine and fight for transformations that prefigure what a just, inclusive, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable society might look like. The struggle to achieve, defend, and extend these changes must be, in André Gorz’s words, “an experiment [for the people] in self-organization, in initiative and collective decision making, in short, an experiment in the possibility of their own emancipation.”*
We are proposing a six-part research agenda intended to develop knowledge that can be used by those who are engaged in struggles to achieve and sustain non-reformist reforms. We do this from a commitment to intellectual and theoretical pluralism. We are not for an instant suggesting that these are the only questions worth studying. But we do believe that there could be significant intellectual and political benefits from a collective effort by researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds to tackle the questions raised by this agenda.
Six Components of the Research Agenda
1. Identifying Background Conditions for Political Mobilization
In recent decades, many on the left have departed from traditional fixations on “dominant contradictions” and deterministic theories of history. Today we recognize that numerous structures of injustice and domination give rise to the need for systemic social change. Social class inequalities intersect with racial and gender hierarchies. People are marginalized by other dimensions of identity including age, sexuality, and disability. The baneful effects of these cross-cutting, evolving structures of injustice – and consequently their potential to spur social movement activity – can show up everywhere in daily life, including in unexpected places. We recall C. Wright Mills’ insights on how “personal troubles” are sometimes recast and become understood as “social problems” that might be addressed through political mobilization. A first branch of the research agenda is to identify previously unrecognized fault lines, dysfunctions (“cracks”), and oppressive practices that are or might become venues of social movement activity as people attempt to protect themselves and achieve self-determination.
2. Solidarity Across Struggles
A second task is to explore how these loci of social conflict connect as aspects of larger social problems, and how connections can be forged that link multiple constituencies. We must also, of course, be alert to potential conflicts and tensions between dominated constituencies that must be addressed as we work to assemble ever larger coalitions. This work involves the development of language and concepts that help people understand that solving the problems they confront requires that they ally themselves with others facing related difficulties. We need a deeper understanding of the “processes of articulation” through which different constituencies come to think of themselves as part of a common movement. Such studies must also be attentive not just to the rational element of social solidarity, but to the emotional and affective currents that are at play in group formation. As we have learned from the social historians, for example, the emergence of a solidaristic working class identity in 19th and early 20th century Europe did not occur automatically. Rather, it was arduously created over time through discourse and through specific struggles in which solidarity was forged.
3. Analyzing Strategies
A third priority is to analyze the strategic choices that arise in social movement activity. Research is needed both on the types of decisions facing social movements and how these decisions are made. One set of recurring choices revolves around how an emerging movement plans to address the problems and concerns that brought its members together. Will it style itself as an interest group focused on public education and lobbying? Will it consider engaging in militant confrontations with government officials or businesses? Will it combine political pressure with self-help and constituent service initiatives, as when feminist activists established shelters for women brutalized by domestic partners?
A second set of strategic choices centers on the kinds of alliances an emerging movement will seek to build to advance its goals. Will it seek to work with an existing political party, try to create a new political grouping, or seek to achieve its ends by remaining apolitical and avoiding partisan identification? Will it seek to build solidarity with other social movements or remain singularly focused on the issues that initially brought the group together?
There are also questions as to the nature of the leverage the movement will seek to deploy to achieve its objectives. Will it rely on good relations with elected leaders, focus on shifting public opinion, or engage in disruptive tactics such as strikes, civil disobedience, or even violence? What use if any will the group make of the legal process, either through test-case litigation or defense-oriented legal work? Our agenda calls for research illuminating the impact of these sorts of strategic choices on the relative success and/or failure of activist movements in producing social change.
4. Organizational Innovations
Social movements and political organizations face difficult choices about how to organize themselves in ways that are inclusive, democratic, and capable of sustaining the energy and commitment of movement participants. Sadly, egalitarian social movements often reproduce the economic, racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies that they profess to challenge. Much literature calls attention to the operation of “the iron law of oligarchy,” on one side, and the “tyranny of structurelessness,” on the other. Do the new communications technologies and social media enhance the ability of social movements to reach out to and coalesce larger constituencies and conduct activities in a democratic, egalitarian manner? What changes are needed to prevent the internet and social media from becoming engines of elite domination and social disintegration? Much can be learned by studying how particular groups address these organizational dilemmas and by documenting innovations that represent successful responses.
5. Reform Trajectories
We also need research on and critical analysis of reform trajectories. Social mobilizations exhibit enormous variation in outcomes. Some very substantial and promising mobilizations end up winning a victory such as a legislative reform that turns out to be merely symbolic; in practice, nothing really changes. Other mobilizations win reforms that appear to be substantial at first but are gradually eroded as powerful interest groups mobilize to blunt regulations or choke off funding for programs they oppose. Still other reform movements find that initial victories result in demobilization, dispersion, and loss of momentum. Some reform victories empower their participants and entrench enduring institutions countervailing to elite power (as when strong labor unions took root over the course of the 20th century). We believe social research can generate insights that will help explain this range of variation while fully respecting the unique, contextual factors operating in each instance. Such research should improve our understanding of social movement trajectories and, therefore, the impacts of the strategic choices activists must make.
6. Assessing what makes reforms possible
While the previous point envisions studies that start from social movements and assess their successes and failures, this one suggests the utility of analysis on the reverse track beginning with significant victories and seeking to understand how they came about.
We envision this six-part research agenda being pursued at multiple levels – local, national, and supranational. At each level, many conflicts and dysfunctions, many articulations, many strategic and organizational choices, and many trajectories await analysis. These questions can be addressed from a wide variety of perspectives. Some studies will focus on the economics of reform initiatives, exploring how they undermine or accommodate to capitalist logics. Others will emphasize questions of political culture, such as the framing of debate and the types of arguments and appeals that proved most potent in arousing the public. Still others will focus on ways in which the institutionalization of successful initiatives either neutralized and contained them or, to the contrary, promoted ongoing political engagement and contestation.
Accumulating knowledge about how contemporary social change movements arise, flourish, and dissipate, and how they succeed and/or fail, will bring us closer to understanding how we might someday achieve global, systemic change. Our agenda assumes that developing a large body of studies of social conflicts, opposition strategies, and reform trajectories – across time and geography – will reveal patterns that could meaningfully inform strategic perspectives for working toward a more egalitarian, just, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable social order.
* “Reform and Revolution,” originally published in Le Socialism Difficile (Éditions du Seuil 1967), reprinted in The Socialist Register 1968 (Merlin 1968) (trans. Ben Brewster). New Left movements in the US and Europe during the 1960s advanced this notion of a long transition to economic democracy by way of a revolution in political consciousness and culture. Recurring voices have advanced this idea ever since (e.g., Wright). The approach is largely untested as a strategy in the neoliberal era. However, it draws on experiences of late 20th century movements that succeeded in dismantling oppressive social structures, e.g., Poland’s Solidarity, Brazil’s Workers Party, and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement (particularly during the intense, in-country struggles of the 1980s), all of which pointed to the importance of on-going organizing and mobilization and the importance of linking distinct groupings into common struggles for structural change.