History has taught us that deep social disruptions, under the right circumstances, can usher in systemic change. In the United States, the Civil War, the Great Depression of 1929, the Civil Rights Movement were transformative moments that shifted – for the better – the realities of class, race and the role of government.
Today the United States, once again, is facing the systemic ambiguities that tend to accompany moments of searing crisis. The enduring aftershocks triggered by the financial meltdown of 2008, the destabilizing impacts of neoliberal globalization on the working class, and Donald Trump’s curation of white supremacy have destabilized long-standing U.S. institutions and alienated large sectors of the population.
The present crisis-driven historical juncture, is fraught with illuminating possibilities and dark atavistic pitfalls. As a country, in simplistic terms, we can choose to politically organize and mobilize around the liberating possibilities of an inclusive social justice agenda, or else we can succumb to the politically constructed fear of the other and the anti-democratic and inhumane realities that such a right-wing project would clearly bring in its wake.
The current liberal reformism upending the Democratic Party reflects a tectonic shift in the national political geometry. In this context, liberal pundits have reductively argued that the growing shift towards a social justice optic is ultimately as function of well-educated, well-meaning, and politically insightful individuals and demographic factors i.e. millennial social change. This elitist emphasis on illuminated individuals erases the role of class and race in the history of U.S. reform movements and reinforces system maintaining incrementalism.
The lessons of race and class and the intersections with political change can be seen in recent electoral upheavals that swept through northwestern Queens. The election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) to congress, Jessica Ramos to the NYS Senate, Catalina Cruz to the NYS Assembly were watershed moments. These young Latinas, with working-class backgrounds, were elected on a tsunami of discontent with the Democratic Party’s political machinery and agile neighborhood-based political organizing and mobilization.
Mainstream political commentators, making the case for simplistic one-dimensional generational political change, have highlighted the determining role of individual political actors such as (AOC) and other youthful disrupters. Nonetheless, it would behoove us to keep in mind the well-known political dictum that states: “Men (sic.) make history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances … transmitted from the past….”
Using these historically informed analytics, one can reasonably concur that contemporary social justice movements are historical outcomes that cannot – in the final analysis – be simply reduced to the individual efforts of so-called unique individuals, nor do they emerge in a political vacuum untethered from embedded constraints and/or possibilities. Transformative political social movements erupt and coalesce in the wake of given historical events. The 2008 financial crisis, the moral and political crisis associated with immigration, the Black-Lives-Matter movement, the Me-Too-movement, the increasing levels of gentrification and local neighborhood expulsions, and the rise of Donald Trump have all set the historical backdrop for today’s surge in the politics of social justice.
The linkage between eruptive moments of crisis and bottom-up political responses are not ideologically predetermined. Popular discontent and the accompanying social movements can take on democratic and inclusionary visions of social justice, but these moments can also assume dark, authoritarian, and exclusionary forms of nostalgia. The pathway to be taken, during ongoing and impending moments of crisis, will largely depend on how we organize our political responses. In short, are our political practices and world views inclusive and forward looking or are they exclusionary and nostalgic?
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former chairperson of the “Newest New Yorker Committee” of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities