Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
— Frederick Douglass, 18571
We are living in a time of grassroots demands to transform our built environment and our relationships with one another and the earth.2 To abolish prisons and police, rent, debt, borders, and billionaires.3 To decommodify housing and healthcare and to decolonize land.4 To exercise more collective ownership over our collectively generated wealth.5 Some of us are reimagining the state. Others are dreaming of moving beyond it.6 But these are more than dreams. These are demands for a democratic political economy.
These demands increased in volume this year as the violence of policing continued, the fires burned in California and Oregon, and the coronavirus raged across the country. The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor set off unprecedented summerlong protests.7 Almost nine million acres of land have burned.8 Twelve tropical storms and hurricanes have made landfall, causing widespread flooding, property damage, and power outages in the Gulf Coast and beyond.9 Over 250,000 people have died from the coronavirus,10 and estimates suggest nearly as many will die this year from suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses.11 Millions of people — the vast majority without a college degree, and many Black, brown, immigrant, disabled — are doing essential devalued labor at great peril to themselves and their families.12 Tens of millions are hungry, without work or healthcare, debt-ridden, and unable to make rent.13 Millions are confined to carceral institutions despite squalid conditions and the heightened risk of coronavirus transmission in jails, prisons, detention centers, and psychiatric institutions.14 While most of us are becoming increasingly insecure, the wealthiest among us are amassing even more wealth.15 And there is no real relief in sight.
In his remarkable Foreword, Professor Michael Klarman implicitly makes the case for this decade of protests, riots, and strikes, and the demands that spring therefrom.16 The United States “is not a democracy.”17 Our political system is “dominate[d]” by “the wealthiest Americans”18 and “well-funded interest groups,”19 whereas “working-class and middle-class Americans exercise almost no influence on political outcomes across a wide array of issues.”20
We are living through a material and ideological crisis: people’s basic needs are not being met — not by the state, and not by the market. But it is not simply that material conditions are increasingly unsurvivable. Ordinary people have no way to determine the conditions of their lives.21 People are taking to the streets because it is their “only recourse.”22
More than hardball, Klarman argues that conservatives and super-elites have written, interpreted, influenced, and enforced the laws to build a world where their power and profit reign supreme. Despite large majorities who support “paid sick leave and parental leave for workers, a higher minimum wage, and higher taxes on millionaires . . . such policies do not get enacted.”23 In an unusually clear identification of political opponents in a piece of legal scholarship, Klarman’s charge is against Republicans, Donald Trump, the Roberts Court, libertarian businessmen, the religious right, and the right-wing media. But Klarman does not rest there: he identifies a fundamental contradiction between property rights and representative democracy in our constitutional structure from the founding until today.24 While he omits land theft and Indigenous genocide, he repeatedly refers to the histories and afterlives of enslavement.25
As he charts the neofascist turn in Republican politics, Klarman provides a sweeping argument about how neoliberalism has come to define our law and politics — with Republicans at the helm and Democrats in tow.26 The “libertarian businessmen’s political agenda” is at the center of the story: “reducing taxes, cutting social welfare programs, privatizing education and other traditional government functions, undermining labor unions, [and] eviscerating environmental regulations.”27 But Klarman overlooks the exponential rise of incarceration and policing since the civil rights movement.28 This is a curious omission given Klarman’s past work on criminal procedure and the Foreword’s focus on eroded democracy, expanding inequality, and racial resentment among whites.29 Mass criminalization is an engine of political, economic, and social disenfranchisement that has devastated Black, brown, poor, and working-class communities.30 It provides bipartisan scaffolding for the widening wealth and income gaps that animate how race, class, and gender are lived.31
Klarman refuses many of the myths of liberalism and neoliberalism.32 He considers law as a terrain and tool of politics: the product of dynamic social forces contending for power. From social movements to the Civil War to the evisceration of labor unions, he describes the bloody struggles — far outside the courtroom or Congress — over labor, land, race, class, and gender as central to the shape and meaning of our laws. He identifies the material incentives and ideological infrastructure that have created the Republican Party we know today and its sizeable support among whites.33 He repudiates any fantasy that we are on a linear march toward betterment for all. He powerfully reminds us, for example, that “only for a relatively brief period during Reconstruction and since the 1965 Voting Rights Act have [B]lacks been permitted to participate in any significant way in American democracy.”34 There is no machinery toiling on automatic toward justice. He understands the state not merely as the government, but as something more akin to the ruling elite.35
After refusing the divisions among democracy, the state, and the economy, Klarman falters when it comes to reforms. He explicitly places the horizon for reform as democracy — which he briefly defines as a political system where “a majority of voters enjoys at least a majority of the political power”36 — and narrows his focus to the formal structures of participation in electoral politics. Klarman calls on the Democratic Party to advance reforms that “bolster”37 and “entrench”38 democracy: implementing automatic voter registration at eighteen, ending felon disenfranchisement, publicly financing elections, resizing the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, and addressing the malapportionment of the Senate.39 He recognizes that “[w]e are trapped in a downward spiral in which growing economic inequality erodes democracy, leading to the enactment of more policies that further exacerbate economic inequality, which then further erodes democracy.”40 But then he concludes that “democratic reform logically must come first.”41
As an empirical and normative matter, I am not so sure. Electoral reform is unlikely to mobilize a public where only twenty to sixty-five percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in various elections and only twenty percent trust the federal government.42 Nor do we have the luxury to wait and see. The rhythms and impacts of minority rule are more frequent and brutal than the election cycle. That most people have virtually “no influence on political outcomes across a wide array of issues”43 has very material consequences. It means widespread hunger and houselessness, declining wages and a third part-time job, no time for rest or leisure or loved ones, and high rates of alcoholism, depression, overdoses, and suicide. It means ballooning budgets for punitive control financed by the poor and defunding of schools, transportation, and infrastructure. It means living in a debt-based economy where most everyone cannot afford their daily existence. It means dirty air, undrinkable water, and rising sea levels. It means widespread premature death and insufficient medical care.44 It means stoking anti-poor, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Mexican sentiment to try to ease the pain between myth and reality. It means doubling down on the nuclear family, patriarchal violence, and gender binaries. It means increased feelings of powerlessness and despondency.
The reforms Klarman advances would provide important avenues to reconstitute Democratic Party power and to weaken nativist right-wing forces. But they would not go far enough to counter the devastation minority rule has wrought through never-ending privatization and the monstrosity of the carceral state. Nor are Democrats likely to lead a meaningful agenda of redistribution and reconstruction. Consider that from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Louisville, virtually all of the cities engulfed in protest this summer have Democratic city councils and mayors. At the federal level, the party leadership has ferociously fought pressure from the emboldened left of the party, even as “the Squad” organizes around large-scale changes that are mobilizing young people and a broader ideological base.45 Democrats have consistently failed to mount a serious challenge to Republican power with any kind of real vision for an alternative or for large structural changes.46 They have been willing partners in the neoliberal project.47
Democracy must be a bottom-up project. It cannot be entrusted to either party. Whether you think of Occupy or Ferguson or Standing Rock or the teachers’ strikes, the flourishing protests of the last decade are grassroots insurgencies against intersecting material crises produced by elite rule. It is here that we must pay attention.48 Social movements are essential to contesting the strangled domain of democratic politics under neoliberal capitalism and its unrelenting expansion of the market economy. To create the conditions where popular majorities can engage in self-rule requires a vision of democracy that does not separate politics from the economy and that is committed to grassroots power and a more ambitious program of reform.
In this Response, I lay out a more capacious vision of democracy emerging from today’s grassroots movements on the left: where the pursuit of “non-reformist reforms” is one strategy to move us toward a democratic political economy where people possess the agency and power to self-determine the conditions of their lives. Organizers are increasingly using the heuristic of non-reformist reforms to conjure the possibility of advancing reforms that facilitate transformational change. Articulated in protests, strikes, campaigns, and policy platforms by organizations like Mijente, Black Visions Collective, Sunrise Movement, the Right To The City Alliance, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union,49 non-reformist reforms provide a framework for thinking about reforms that aim to build grassroots power as they redress the crises of our times. They embody a combined concern with democracy and the economy, the ends and processes of grassroots power: to fight criminalization and privatization as we organize for collective self-determination.
The Response proceeds as follows. In Part I, I lay out the conceptual framework of non-reformist reforms, its origins, and its current articulation in abolitionist, antiracist, and anticapitalist organizing.50 In Part II, I turn to defund the police as one example of a non-reformist reform. In Part III, I explain that movements are making demands for the public to have greater say in the commons: our collectively generated wealth, the land, and our shared built environment. These demands for redistribution reflect the deepening of anticapitalist and antiracist critique in many of today’s movements and a shift in thinking about the nature of reform that creates greater self-determination for poor, working-class, Black, and brown people — and a more just and sustainable future for us all.
As a matter of rhetoric, the left often fashions itself as against reform and outside of formal politics — characterizations that liberals and scholars echo.51 But today’s left social movements are turning to demands, reforms, and policy platforms.52 This is not a rejection of electoral and legislative politics: it is a cautious embrace, marking a shift for the emergent left. The demands are amplified by an increasingly organized strategy to elect left and socialist candidates to office, to challenge the Democratic Party’s ties to corporate money and the billionaire class, and to redefine the realm of the possible.53 Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and the growing Squad are supported by a developing constellation of organizations focused on electoral strategy — and these elected officials have become important amplifiers for radical demands.54 The turn to reform undoubtedly reflects the defeat of the revolutionary politics of the New Left and Black Power era — itself an index of frustration with what the civil rights movement achieved55 — as well as a recognition of the immensity of U.S. military and police power that rose up to crush movements here and around the world.56 But it also reflects a sober assessment of the limited scale of left, working-class, and poor people power amid decades of state repression and the rise of the neoliberal agenda Klarman documents.57 It is a bid for power that recognizes that mass disenfranchisement is central to the elite’s hold on the state and the economy. A growing number of organizers now understand the need to organize poor, working-class, Black, brown, and immigrant people to effectuate transformational change.58
Reform has long been a central question in debates about left and socialist strategy,59 with a range of terms to capture the aspiration for a reform program aimed at a larger project of transformation.60 Organizers are increasingly invoking non-reformist reforms, the term coined in the 1960s by French economist-philosopher and socialist André Gorz.61 In Strategy for Labor, Gorz defined a non-reformist reform as one that does not comport with “capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales.”62 Instead it advances a logic of “what should be” and requires “implementation of fundamental political and economic changes.”63 Whether the change is “sudden” or “gradual” is immaterial: non-reformist reforms require a “modification of the relations of power,” in particular “the creation of new centers of democratic power.”64
The non-reformist reform framework is prevalent in abolitionist organizing against the prison industrial complex65 and deployed by those who embrace racial justice, anticapitalism, and socialism more broadly.66 In Golden Gulag, Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls for non-reformist reforms, which she defines as “changes that, at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization.”67 Through decades of campaigns against carceral infrastructure, abolitionist campaigns have produced rubrics demarcating an approach to reform focused on reducing the scale, power, tools, and legitimacy of the carceral state.68 The focus on the ideological scaffolding of carceral control — the equation of policing with safety, for example — signals a keen understanding of the interlocking ideological and material infrastructure of our lives.69 In turn, it suggests, like Gorz did, that a revolutionary program of reform must continually deepen consciousness around the violence and exploitation of the status quo as it advances the possibility of alternatives.
While Gorz is remembered as a champion for non-reformist reforms, his work is decidedly ambivalent: a “very clear dividing line” will not always exist between “reformist” and “non-reformist reforms.”70 Assessing a demand for “the construction of 500,000 new housing units a year,” for example, would require an assessment of whether the proposal involved “the expropriation of those who own the required land, and whether the construction would be a socialized public service, thus destroying an important center of the accumulation of private capital; or if, on the contrary, this would mean subsidizing private enterprise with taxpayers’ money to guarantee its profits.”71 The non-reformist reform does not aim to create policy solutions to discrete problems; rather it aims to unleash people power against the prevailing political, economic, and social arrangements and toward new possibilities.
But whether something is non-reformist or reformist is about more than the nature of the demand and its particulars: it is also a question of how the campaign is waged. Consider another example: abolition of the death penalty. The conventional liberal approach emphasizes that death is too great a power for the state, and reassures the public that life sentences will continue to ensure safety of local communities. In this guise, the campaign aims to shrink the state’s carceral power in one particular way but does not question mass human caging. As the campaign attempts to undermine the death penalty, its logic shores up the legitimacy, righteousness, and necessity of life sentences.72 A non-reformist approach would frame the problem of the death penalty as stemming from the larger violence of prisons and policing and its historical continuities with lynching and enslavement. Life without parole then is not the solution, it is illegitimate carceral violence: what abolitionist organizers in Pennsylvania have dubbed “death by incarceration.”73
If the same demand can be framed or implemented in reformist or non-reformist ways, the line is undoubtedly murky in practice. But this does not make the attempt to distinguish futile. Instead it clarifies that reform projects are contradictory gambits if the aim is transformation: they always have the possibility of reifying the status quo. Nonetheless, there are essential distinctions for developing transformative programs of reform that aim to undermine the prevailing order in service of building a new one.
The hallmarks of non-reformist reforms are three. First, non-reformist reforms advance a radical critique and radical imagination.74 Reform is not the end goal; transformation is.75 Non-reformist reforms are “conceived not in terms of what is possible within the framework of a given system and administration, but in view of what should be made possible in terms of human needs and demands.”76 In advancing an agenda to meet human need, non-reformist reforms advance a critique about how capitalism and the carceral state structure society for the benefit of the few, rather than the many. They also posit a radical imagination for a state or society oriented toward meeting those needs.
By contrast, reformist reforms draw on and advance critiques of our system — whether that be capitalism or the carceral state — that do not question underlying premises or advance alternative futures. In fact, reformist reforms “reject those objectives and demands — however deep the need for them — which are incompatible with the preservation of the system.”77 Here, one can think of the quick rejections by so many of defund the police or the Green New Deal — despite the mounting evidence that liberal reforms have done little to limit police violence or to slow the speed at which we are hurtling toward increasingly frequent environmental disasters.78 Liberal reformism effectively shields the status quo from deep critique.79 The end goal of liberal reformism is just that: reform.
The non-reformist reform then provides a framework for demands that will undermine the prevailing political, economic, social system from reproducing itself and make more possible a radically different political, economic, social system. For abolitionists, the underlying system to undermine is the prison industrial complex and the horizon to build toward is abolition democracy. For socialists, the underlying system is capitalism and the horizon socialism. In theory and practice, these are intertwined, variegated, and debated political projects.80
I am suggesting neither a false neatness within nor artificial distinctions between rich left traditions. But I mention it to make a point so obscured in legal discourse: that approaches to reform reflect ideological commitments, critiques of or acquiescence to underlying systems, aspirations for the future, and theories of change. Reforms communicate analyses of our conditions, tell stories about possibilities, and contribute to dynamic relations of power. So the target and object of the non-reformist framework will depend on one’s political project and analysis, as will whether one accepts a reformist or non-reformist orientation.
Whereas reformist reforms aim to improve, ameliorate, legitimate, and even advance the underlying system,81 non-reformist reforms aim for political, economic, social transformation: for example, socialism or abolition democracy. They seek to delegitimate the underlying system in service of building new forms of social organization. Rather than relegitimate, they seek to sustain ideological crisis as a way to provoke action and develop public consciousness about the possibilities of alternatives and our collective capacity to build them together.
Second, non-reformist reforms must draw from and create pathways for building ever-growing organized popular power.82 They aim to shift power away from elites and toward the masses of people. This is a matter of substance and process, from where the demand comes, the vision it advances, and the space it creates. Whether through demands on the state or the workplace, non-reformist reform “always requires the creation of new centers of democratic power[,] . . . a restriction on the powers of State or Capital, an extension of popular power, that is to say, a victory of democracy over the dictatorship of profit.”83 In their focus on power, non-reformist reforms challenge liberal legal frameworks that tend to obscure power relations.84 Non-reformist reforms are about building the power of people to wage a long-term struggle of transformation.
In contrast to reforms formulated by expert elites, non-reformist reforms come from social movements, labor, and organized collectives of poor, working-class, and directly impacted people making demands for power over the conditions of their lives and the shape of their institutions.85 People living under perilous conditions must generate analysis of those conditions, and advance solutions, in collective formations.86 Collective processes — whether in organizations, unions, or assemblies — become schools of democratic governance in action: processes of enfranchisement and exercises in self-determination that build power and motivate further action.87
Third, non-reformist reforms are about the dialectic between radical ideation and power building. Non-reformist reforms come from contestatory exercises of popular power.88 They attempt to expand organized collective power to build pathways for transformation. As such, they are not in themselves about finding an answer to a policy problem: They are centrally about an exercise of power by people over the conditions of their own lives. They aim to create “a vast extension of democratic participation in all areas of civic life — amounting to a very considerable transformation of the character of the state and of existing bourgeois democratic forms.”89
Because the end goal is building power rather than identifying a policy fix, non-reformist reforms can only be effective when pursued in relation to a broader array of strategies and tactics for political, economic, social transformation. That includes protests and strikes as well as political education, mutual aid, organizing, and the building of alternative institutions.
Along with other strategies and tactics, reforms are in dialectical relationship with transformation: deepening consciousness, building independent power and membership, and expanding demands.90 As Gorz put it, reforms have to be imagined as part of a longer-term “strategy of progressive conquest of power by the workers.”91
II. Defund the Police
Consider the appeals to defund and dismantle the police, the loudest demands voiced by organizers in Minneapolis in response to the police killing of George Floyd and then fueled by unprecedented numbers of people taking to the streets all summer across the country.92 The scale and longevity of these protests speak to the mass constituency for defund the police. The almost century-long history of mass protest sparked by police violence93 combined with this year’s protests suggests the power of police violence to mobilize people in ways that electoral reform projects are unlikely to do today.
The demand to defund and dismantle the police stems from decades of abolitionist organizing against the carceral state — organizing that has proliferated since the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions and the rise of the Movement for Black Lives. As more and more young people took to organizing for justice and accountability in the wake of the police killings of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland,94 their analysis of police shifted. More and more organizers studied local budgets and noticed how disproportionate sums of money feed carceral infrastructure.95 A fundamental critique of prisons, police, and capitalism took hold alongside deepening antiracist agendas. Now, from the Black Visions Collective to the Sunrise Movement to Mijente, a broad range of left social movement organizations have endorsed defund the police as an abolitionist strategy.96
In its bare form, defund the police is oppositional rather than conciliatory. The demand stands in stark contrast to conventional approaches to police reform that typically focus on relegitimating police in response to crisis and reinvesting in police through trainings, technologies, and policies.97 Defund the police challenges reforms that redress police violence as if it is a product of bad behavior or poor decisionmaking by an individual officer or insufficient institutional oversight, incentives, and training. Wide-ranging research shows the limited or negligible efficacy of mainstream reforms to mitigate police violence.98 Not only are their results of such efforts mixed, but also they are central to the substantial growth of police budgets over the last several decades.99
Defund suggests the problem with police is not isolated, nor is it a result of a few bad apples. It brings attention to the central tool of police: violence and exploitation, be it ticketing and fining, sexual assault and humiliation, tasering, arrest, or killing.100 In turn, defund the police calls into question the fundamental premise of policing shared by liberal reformers: that it produces safety.101 By pointing to violence as central and routine, rather than occasional and aberrant, organizers argue that training, policy, and technology will not remediate police violence. Once that violence is understood as central, Mariame Kaba explains, it becomes clear that the “only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.”102
But defund does not simply challenge the ideology of liberal reform: by targeting police funding, defund challenges its materiality. State and local governments are estimated to spend $115 billion on police.103 Whereas liberal reform invests in police — easily on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars104 — defund calls for divestment from police. It challenges the orientation toward financing policing at the cost of the public: how conventional reform sustains a social contract that provides increasingly little to the public apart from prisons, police, and jails — and the courts that sustain them.105
Defund is properly understood alongside campaigns to oppose policing and jail infrastructure projects that have proliferated across the country.106 Chicago and Durham organizers have campaigned against the building of police training facilities and headquarters.107 There are campaigns against the building of new jails and for the closing of old jails, including detention centers for children and immigrants, with recent victories in Los Angeles,108 St. Louis,109 Atlanta,110 Kelley, Task Force Submits Final Report on Closure and Reimagining of City Jail, Atl. INtown (June 12, 2020), https://atlantaintownpaper.com/2020/06/task-force-submits-final-report-on-closure-and-reimagining-of-city-jail [https://perma.cc/DGM8-3DRL]; see also Alexandra (Sachi) Cole, ACLU Found. of Ga., Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia 28–30, 95 (Azadeh Shahshahani ed., 2012), https://www.acluga.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/prisoners_of_profit.pdf [https://perma.cc/LVE6-R3N4]. and Seattle.111 The calls to divest from the carceral state are often accompanied by demands to build infrastructures of care:112 in Los Angeles, a youth development department;113 in Florida, “universal healthcare,” “guaranteed jobs,” “universal basic income,” and “social workers, nurses, and counselors”;114 and in Seattle, money for Black, Indigenous, and people of color–led organizations through participatory budgeting115 — which, alongside People’s Budgets, are on the rise in the United States.116
Defund, then, intervenes in the violence of neoliberal capitalism. When demands to divest are paired with demands to invest elsewhere, campaigns point to neoliberal statecraft as made up of political choices about how our collectively generated tax dollars are spent. They posit an alternative to cutting taxes, gutting social welfare programs, piling on carceral fines and fees, criminalizing the poor, and financing billions of dollars of infrastructure for an unparalleled carceral state. To raise taxes on the wealthy rather than to impose fines and fees on the poor. To house rather than jail the houseless. Demands to divest gesture at a future where local budgets and infrastructure are under popular control and tend to human need rather than the elite power.
As articulated by abolitionist organizers, defund advances a radical critique of police and neoliberal capitalism and a radical imagination around building a society that tends to people’s needs. It comes from abolitionist organizing. Voiced amid a surge of protest, defund contributed to an explosion of abolitionist organizing and engagement with local politics all over the country.117 Defund, then, is arguably a non-reformist reform.118 But as with most any demand, defund can be mobilized in reformist ways: to end rather than to sustain grassroots power and protest; to relegitimate and recalibrate rather than to contribute to an effort to delegitimate and dismantle policing. Until relatively recently, liberal reformers were not advocating budget cuts: now, some have accepted defunding to varying degrees, even as they continue to push conventional reforms.119 Whereas abolitionist organizers advocate defund as a strategy to undercut and delegitimate police, liberal reformers advance limited defunding to recalibrate and relegitimate police function. This interest convergence provides opportunities and challenges for transformative organizing, and it points to the necessity of ongoing organizing.120
III. Demands for Redistribution
Today’s social movement organizations are advancing a range of what could be understood as non-reformist reforms: defund and dismantle the police, cancel rent, give land back, abolish ICE, free them all, and make reparations.121 Reflecting a growing intersectional consciousness that integrates an analysis of how capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy sustain one another, they plow through the mythic divides between the state and the market; law, politics, and the economy; and race, gender, and class.122 They aim to build grassroots power as they respond to the fundamental crises we face. These demands attempt to advance radical critique and radical imagination and to transform the political, economic, and social system. They will not all succeed, and there will undoubtedly be debates and differences on which reforms are truly non-reformist. But the aspiration for non-reformist reforms marks a fundamental shift for the left — and provides a broader way for thinking about the democratic project we should pursue.
Notably, the demands take a particular shape: They are not about rights or discrimination, diversity or recognition, criminalization or training. They are demands for redistribution: a say in how we spend our collective wealth, how we relate to the land, and how we reimagine the infrastructure in which we live.123 This is what is meant by a democratic political economy where people have a bigger choice than between two candidates for the highest office, where they have real say over all aspects of their lives, where they are not subject to unchecked private or state power.124 As two U.K. activists put it, today’s left demands are “about putting power and resources in the hands of everyday people, through new forms of democratic public and community ownership at national, regional, and local levels.”125 This is a direct challenge to a view of politics that is constrained by the ballot box and does not touch “an economy in which elites extract and monopolise wealth and power through their ownership of resources that should serve the common good, be they land, energy, or the money supply itself.”126 It provides instead an imagination and a strategy for fighting for multiracial grassroots solidarity and a society organized to meet human need rather than to serve profit.
Defund and dismantle the police are central among demands for more democratic power over the commons and contesting the shape of our cities, their infrastructures, and budgets. There are other examples. Consider the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal, which has transformed climate politics with its focus on infrastructure, labor, and social provision.127 The Green New Deal requires that we restructure our economy so we can move to clean, renewable energy sources and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.128 It calls for enormous investments in public transit, universal healthcare, housing, and higher education.129 Central to its vision is moving toward well-paid care work and green jobs for massive public infrastructure projects, with an emphasis on communities of color, which have long borne the brunt of ecological decline, neoliberal divestment, and substandard pay for essential work.130
Making a distinctly urgent claim to land, Indigenous organizers are asserting environmental justice as Indigenous sovereignty.131 The NDN Collective’s just-launched “landback” campaign calls for land back to Indigenous communities as central to restoring “a relationship with Mother Earth that is symbiotic and just.”132 The Red Nation’s Red Deal demands divestment from police, “La Migra,” and child protective services;133 reinvestment in free housing, education, healthcare, transportation, and food;134 a “moratorium on oil, gas, and coal extraction”;135 “land, water, air, and animal restoration”;136 “protection and restoration of sacred sites”;137 and “enforcement of treaty rights and other agreements.”138
The Red Nation elaborates on its framework like this:
Our philosophy of reform is to reallocate social wealth back to those who actually produce it: workers, the poor, Indigenous peoples, the Global South, women, migrants, caretakers of the land, and the land itself. . . . By fighting for non-reformist reforms in and with our most vulnerable communities, we will drain power and resources from state surveillance and harm and reinvest these resources in the wellbeing of all.139
The Red Nation gives voice to a particular orientation of non-reformist reforms today. In their focus on budgets, land, and material infrastructure, movements are making demands on and for the commons. Centrally, these demands are assertions that wealth belongs to the people and the land that generated it. These demands assert a right for the public to have a say as movements build capacity to exercise it. They create a mold for thinking about reform projects that is fundamentally distinct from conventional legal frameworks.
Expanding our vision for democracy and the demands we must prioritize is essential if we wish to live in a more just world and a more sustainable future. Just as Klarman documents privatization and union-busting as central to concentrating power,140 an emancipatory agenda must include contestation of private and corporate power, including in the workplace. Organizing against private power will be central for building popular power against the exploitation of the market economy.141 From tenant organizing to strikes by teachers, nurses, hotel workers, communication and auto workers, Uber and Lyft drivers, graduate students, and professional athletes, we are living in a time of labor and housing organizing.142
By striking, organizing, and making demands against private power, workers and communities exercise and build their power — and hopefully win concessions. But the most powerful organizing does more: it provides nodes for solidarity and continued organizing and builds analysis and capacity to respond to intersecting crises. Recent teachers’ strikes became larger struggles about the privatization of education and defunding of public schools.143 The #NoDAPL Standing Rock encampment and the No Keystone XL campaign contested how the state, corporations, and police work together to exploit the earth in violation of Indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights — and has catalyzed waves of native organizing.144 Tenant organizing against landlords points to how cities work with developers and police to create increasingly unaffordable housing, including through the machinery of evictions and gentrification.145 When tenants collectively buy the buildings in which they rent as a way to remove property from the market, they decommodify housing.146 Such organizing raises expectations, deepens consciousness, sharpens analysis, and builds power and capacity for the next fight.147
Social movement organizations create space for democratic participation, contestation, and action. Central to the conception of these radical reforms are that they mobilize and enfranchise the grassroots. These demands speak to the crises of our times by the people demobilized within democratic politics. They aim to build democratic power and a democratic political economy in a mutually constitutive way. These demands posit an alternative to the neoliberal carceral state: a society not about profit and punishment and the individual; one where we work together to tend to people’s needs and to care for human and nonhuman life, including the land.
As today’s left social movement ecosystem develops its analysis in relation to campaigns and experiments — engaging in dynamic praxis — this turn toward our built environment, the land, and our collective wealth creates space for interconnected analysis and large multiracial movements.148 So many more of us would benefit from a state and society where we have a real say over the shape of our lives and our communities, on the streets, at home, and at work. It is from here that we must build democracy.
Klarman’s Foreword recognizes that the crises of our time are urgent and deep. While I agree with much of his assessment and many of his proposed reforms, democracy is about more than the ballot box, and the Democratic Party cannot legislate it into being. Democracy is a practice. It is about contestation and self-determination.149 Its terrain includes labor, housing, and healthcare. Its shape is constituted by prisons and police, fines and fees, local budgets, tax dollars, and infrastructure projects. It is about the environment and our relationship to all forms of life. It is about the ideas and structures we must deconstruct, and those we build. It is about today’s social movements, their turn to non-reformist reforms, and their demands for a democratic political economy.
* Associate Professor of Law, The Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law. For generous engagement with the ideas presented here, I am grateful to Amy Cohen, Amy Kapczynski, Andy Hsiao, Anthony Arnove, Aziz Rana, Bernard Harcourt, Bertrall Ross, Jocelyn Simonson, Kate Andrias, Marbre Stahly-Butts, Rachel Foran, Russell Robinson, Ruth Colker, K. Sabeel Rahman, Sa’dia Rehman, Sam Moyn, Sameer Ashar, and Zohra Ahmed. Breeana Minton, Sara Dagher, Thomas Pope, Jason Ketchum, and Eleni Christofides provided superb research assistance. Natasha Landon, Kaylie Vermillion, Stephanie Ziegler, Matt Cooper, and Corazon Britton provided indispensable library support.