I’ve been asked a few times about the books I’ve read that shape my thinking about social change. Everytime I think about it, I’m always amazed by how much these books influenced my own views over these past few years!
Below is my short list of my top 6 books for social change. In the comments, make sure to leave your favorite books or if you have thoughts on these books!
Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy by Rinku Sen
Rinku Sen’s perspective is the perfect framework for the 21st century, as opposed to relying on the previous Alinsky-tradition. Her analysis demonstrates the need for cross-issue strategies and pushing for long-term culture change over shorter-term victories.
To me the critical message and sentence from the book is that those pushing for social change need to start “increasing our organizing among the people affected and then addressing their issues with sustained campaigns and the addition of research and media capacity.”
While the book is laid out a bit more densely than something like Organizing for Social Change (described below), you will find the core skills and analysis we need to make concrete and impactful results through strategic organizing.
Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision by George Lakoff
This is a great addition to George Lakoff’s other book on values-based framing. Don’t Think of an Elephant.
This book builds on those framing discussions and really delves into how we can create a long-term and resilient strategy for creating a positive progressive future.
George Lakoff looks at effective ways to communicate our vision and values that truly represent what we believe and avoiding deceptive/poor tactics and phrasing. He also describes, and gives detailed examples for, the need for cross-issue campaigns (which he calls “Strategic Initiatives”).
It’s a short read, but packed with the essentials on how to authentically communicate for the common-good.
De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century by Elizabeth Martínez
When I first picked up this book, I had no idea how much it would fundamentally influence my efforts here on Organizing Change.
Elizabeth Martínez’s book has not got nearly the attention it deserves. This description of progressive activism and history in the 20th century highlights key movements, while at the same time offering wisdom on better strategies we can take in this century.
For example, Elizabeth Martínez notes that the aversion to incorporating spirituality in leftist circles “has opened the door wide to right-wing manipulation of spiritual hunger.” She offers as a counter, that we should be allowing room for faith and other affirmations of the heart instead of suppressing these essential parts of ourselves.
So if you’re looking to learn from past social change organizing and how we can grow/shift these efforts, then check out this incredible book!
Organizing for Social Change by Midwest Academy
This manual is perfect for understanding the fundamentals and advanced practices of organizers in any field.
The Midwest Academy’s book offers an in-depth look at tactics, meeting with decisionmakers, coalitions, recruiting, leadership development, etc.
Once I combined this book with Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up (which has a bit more analysis of intersectionality/power dynamics), I felt like I had the essential knowledge to take on any organizing situation.
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
I know I get caught up in a few issues from time to time, but Naomi Klein demonstrates how neoliberalism is a force impacting pretty much everything.
Also, if you read this book and some of the ideas listed in my post above you’ll have a clear idea of some real steps we can take to preventing the spread of the neoliberal ideology and creating a more positive economic framework.
If you like history and detailed journalism, you’ll love this book! If not, well then maybe you can skim a few of the 720 pages!
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE!
INCITE!’s book on the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC) was truly groundbreaking since it was one of the first attempts to gather a range of perspectives on why nonprofits (as a system) were not achieving the desired aims.
Here are a few of the main points I took away from this book:
Nonprofits now focus most on providing social services, not social change, because that would mean challenging those institutions in power (e.g. government, business, and foundations)
Activism cannot be simply “a career,” we must find ways to integrate into our lives
Nonprofits often siphon away activists to just become “part of the system,” instead of challenging it to change
Foundations and government agencies strived to use the structure of current nonprofits to create/maintain control over social movements/social change work (i.e. so grassroots movements wouldn’t get “antagonistic”/”disruptive”)
Even if you don’t work in a nonprofit, you’ll still should be acquainted with this anthology since its analysis hits on all areas of society.
2 EXTRAS!!! For community organizers!
Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing by DeFilippis, Fisher, and Shragge
A must-read if you’re involved in community organizing. It lays out some of the main faults of most community organizing (e.g. being non-ideological and resisting connecting local work to national or international efforts), while also presenting some ways for improvement (e.g. pushing for long-term social change and understanding the limits of community organizing).
While it leans toward the heavy-duty academic side, you’re definitely going to want to check out this book.
Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group by John Atlas
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was a highly impactful anti-poverty organization and one of the most proactive groups to ever organize.
This book looks at how ACORN structured itself, the organizing practices it advocated, and the ways in which it was unprepared for deceptive opposition.
It’s going to be crucial to remember the lessons from ACORN if we’re going to develop something at an even more advanced stage.
This is my list of the social change “must-read” books. Leave a comment below of the books that you find essential!
Liberty! Human Rights! Choice! Prosperity! Freedom!
These seemingly familiar words are how neoliberals see their movement for the expansion of the “free market.”
Advocates see the “neoliberal agenda” (i.e. freeing the market from constraints such as regulations and tariffs) as going hand-in-hand with freedom, even when the results across the world tell a very different tale.
We barely have to look before finding new new waves of protest (e.g. Turkey, Brazil, and Slovenia) against the intimate connection between neoliberalism, corruption, authoritarianism, and austerity measures.
Those pushing for free market “reforms” will say these connections are “exceptions” and “not true expressions of neoliberalism.”
This neoliberal myth of a “liberating free market economy” is one we must dismantle and replace with the truth as the Naomi Klein quote illustrates above that neoliberalism is the result of “state interference and violence.”
This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of how we can prepare to organizing against neoliberalism including:
Key elements of ways neoliberalism becomes entrenched in our systems
Core beliefs that frame how neoliberals envision their movement
The main long-term efforts we can take to combat neoliberalism
With the collective wisdom of those who have dedicated their lives to diverting the oppressive framework of the “free market,” I’ve worked to make this guide represent current activist thoughts and strategies.
If as you’re reading this you find yourself saying “but what about…?” or “I know a great resource/example to share!” then I’d love for you to leave a comment at the end of this post or send me a message.
So here we go, “The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism.”
So what is neoliberalism exactly?
At it’s core, neoliberalism is an economic system working on eliminating government regulations, trade barriers, and tariffs (and possibly government altogether) along with privatizing as many aspects of society as possible.
Privatization – e.g. turning the operation of education, roads, and health care over to companies
Government deregulation – e.g. removing environmental protections, workers’ rights, and monitoring the financial industry
Deep cuts to social spending – e.g. cutting food stamps, access to family planning services, and mental health programs
These demands are about shifting responsibility from the government to the private sector to handle improving peoples’ lives.
At a deeper level neoliberalism is really all about making, as Barnard Harcourt writes, “the ordered market as the model of social interaction… In other words, to extend the model of natural order beyond economic exchange to crime, divorce, punishment, illicit drugs, adoption, and so on.”
So what this means for a neoliberal is we need to structure our entire society, family, government, relationships, etc. around the idea of the “market”.
One reason neoliberalism is a confusing concept is that many people and institutions accept its starting points (e.g. growth is always a good thing and it will help everyone over time) without even digging into whether these “foundational precepts” are actually true.
It’s a very black-and-white world for a neoliberal. One in which every person has sole responsibility for their success, and corporate expansion is good for all.
The photo above shows a photo of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US President Ronald Reagon, both of whom were integral to implementing neoliberal policies and ideas.
For an in-depth analysis of the forms of neoliberalism in economic terms, check out this great resource.
So to recap in a sentence…neoliberalism seeks to privatize, deregulate government, cut social services, and shift values from the public good/community to values based on “rule of the market”/individual responsibility.
Neoliberal frames and views of their own ideology
Now that we’ve gone over some of the main aims of neoliberals, one important question remains…Why do neoliberals view a completely free market as the ideal system? How do neoliberals truly view their movement? What motivates or influences them to force their policies on the rest of the world?
These neoliberal worldviews are based in the unwavering belief in a “free market.” Even though many of these ideas lack any kind of scientific evidence in their favor.
Neoliberals will rarely call themselves “neoliberals” by name, so these frames below will help you identify narratives based in questionable logic.
Neoliberals believe the market economy is “natural” and “self-regulating” (i.e. “the invisible hand of the market”). Adam Smith, one of the founders of capitalist thought, saw the “natural laws of the economy” as exactly that…“natural.” He believed that a totally free market would tend toward balance on the whole.
Economists tend to use these assumptions that the market will “self-correct,” even lacking any scientific validity. People control the market, and those with the most power will often make sure the “invisible hand” benefits them.
There is a clear distinction between individual greed and corruption. The neoliberal model structures itself around individual vice and greed pushing forward economic growth. However, they believe corruption happens in only a few cases and is not related to a systemic problem within neoliberalism.
“What’s good for business is good for the nation.” This comes from the idea that the private sector is the most efficient at solving nearly any issues. Thus, privatization should always be encouraged since wealth will “trickle-down.”
Government is inefficient. Related to the last point, neoliberals see government as standing in the way of a completely “unfettered” expression of capitalism. With regulations, tariffs, and workers’ rights governments across the world reduce the private sector’s ability to more efficiently solve the problem.
Individual responsibility is key to self-advancement. Social services and the “public good”/commons weaken one’s ability to succeed in the free market by putting them under the control of the state. Everyone has the ability to succeed if they work hard. In particular, entrepreneurs are essential to responding to market needs.
The “free market” = a “free society.” Neoliberals view their project as the best way to advance justice, reduce poverty, and institute democracy. Liberty in all areas of life!
Instead of “free markets” going hand-in-hand with “free societies,” Naomi Klein shows in The Shock Doctrine how actually governments have to become more repressive and use “shocks” in order to implement their neoliberal “reforms.”
This next section looks at how these dominant frames underlying neoliberal thought are slowly seeping into areas beyond just economics.
Modern examples of the encroachment of neoliberalism
So now that we’ve gone over many of the main attributes of “unfettered capitalism,” what does this look like in today’s modern political and social climate? Below are some of the key ways neoliberal advocates attempt to bring about their visions.
This can range from those pushing for “school choice,” giving parents “vouchers” to help pay for sending their children to private schools, and the proliferation of unregulated corporatized charter schools.
All of these measures are steady moves for a complete system of private institutions and an end to all public education.
Education is just one example of government outsourcing its responsibility and accountability to outside contractors (e.g. private prisons). The rise of government privatization also brings about increases in corruption and cronyism.
Austerity measures and deep cuts to social spending go hand-in-hand with this neoliberal model of government.
Naomi Klein notes how our government agencies more and more try to turn over homeland security and disaster reconstruction efforts to private companies. She notes how this creates a “disaster economy” where terrible events are needed to stimulate the market.
Shouldn’t we be aiming for stabilizing the economy and reducing the number of disasters, rather than creating a vast market that feeds off and at the very least does little to prevent these events from occurring in the first place?
The Nonprofit Industry
As noted above government entities increasingly aim to outsource their obligations over to private companies, but they also do the same for social services.Now nonprofits have become so linked to government and business interests, there is often little to distinguish between them.
INCITE! notes that foundation and government funders force nonprofits to only provide social services, as opposed to working for social change.
In particular, the nonprofit industry increasingly have to look at their members as “clients” and other commodified versions of the people powering our movements in order to fit into the neoliberal dynamic.
Now let’s look at some the tools and dynamics neoliberals use to institutionalize their struggle to bring “liberty” to the market to these systems of education, government, etc.
6 practices neoliberals use to implement their ideology
I’m specifically pointing out the following ways neoliberalism becomes entrenched in our systems, in order to support all of us in recognizing them when they appear (as many are encased in seemingly innocuous rhetoric).
Shocks can be any kind of shock to the overarching systems such as: natural disasters, violence/conflict, political crisis, wars, etc.
You can see the immediate calls for neoliberal “reforms” in response to “shocks” all across the world, from Haiti to Greece.
Milton Friedman, the shining figure of neoliberalism, said “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.”
Friedman expanded upon this to say a neoliberal economist’s main function is “to keep them [neoliberal ideas] alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” In other words, those wishing to implement the neoliberal agenda must always be ready to instil their ideas.
Naomi Klein highlights in The Shock Doctrine that in practice this neoliberalizing process after a “shock” looks like the following:
Governments sell “off pieces of the state to private players while citizens are still reeling from the shock”
Then the government works on swiftly making the “reforms” permanent
The reason neoliberal policies often require “crisis” is that people would never accept such “reforms” under usual circumstances.
Neoliberals in all sectors of society have used the “Shock Doctrine” to steadily enshrine neoliberal ideas all across the globe.
2. Funding the expansion of neoliberal ideology
If neoliberal policies were so unpopular with the majority of people, how did they get the support they needed to become so widespread?
One of the key methods that propelled forward this approach to the economy, was a small network of academic institutions and think tanks that financed a new generation of economists (e.g. Chicago Boys) who filled many branches of the public and private sector.
Some of these main organizations include: the University of Chicago’s Economics Department, the Ford Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century, and the Cato Institute.
3. Demanding neoliberal “adjustments” in exchange for aid
The globe’s main financial institutions (e.g. International Monetary Fund [IMF] , World Bank, and Federal Reserve) came together under the “Washington Consensus,” which outlined a series of steps any country that accepted “aid” had to implement.
The reason these examples often gets hidden in the history books, Naomi Klein notes, is due the rise of human rights activism which focused on military oppression and not economic oppression.
6. Holding on to cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more conflicting ideas, pieces of information, etc. Cognitive dissonance at its core is the process of trying to make ideas live up to reality, even if the opposite is the case.
Advocates of neoliberal theories often demonstrate this cognitive dissonance when it comes to viewing their free market failures.
One of the most common is to blame corruption for negative economic trends. Neoliberals cry out “it’s not the economic system!” it’s “just a few bad apples.”
So as long as neoliberals continue to ignore the realities of their program, they will continue to ignore the deeply negative implications of their policies.
Now that we’ve gone over what neoliberals do to instil their agenda into society and their worldviews of why they do so, it’s time to look at specifics of what we can do long-term to combat them.
How we can dismantle neoliberalism
After laying out the key elements of the neoliberal ideology, now I want to highlight some of the most promising ways to dismantle this system and create a new economic paradigm that truly reflects our positive values.
As activists and organizers in different fields there many ways we can go about combating neoliberalism, but these next few sections outline some of the most important things we must do in order to be successful.
Shift the neoliberal narrative
Action 1: Undermining neoliberal frames with the truth. As I wrote above some of the neoliberal beliefs (e.g.the market economy is “natural” and “self-regulating,” “free market” = a “free society,” etc.) just don’t actually have any basis in fact.
We have to confront these ideas wherever they appear and make sure folks know the coercive history of how these thoughts became imbedded in our political discourse.
Action 2: Since we must do more than simply pointing out the negative implications of neoliberal frames, we must also clearly and persistently articulate our own values. Some or the most important include:
Government can, and ought to be a force for good
External factors influence an individual’s success, thus we must all do our part to support others
An open and transparent political and economic system is fundamental to a healthy society
Enshrining these values into dominant discourse is not something that can happen overnight, we must continually push over the long-term to make them a reality.
Change policies and institutions
Action 3: Once we’ve started to unravel the culture that somehow neoliberalism is impenetrability and “the only option,” we have to shutdown the practices neoliberals use to implement their ideology at the political and economic level. To recap what I wrote above, here are those favorite practices:
Relying on the “Shock Doctrine”
Funding the expansion of neoliberal ideology
Demanding neoliberal “adjustments” in exchange for aid
Building on the self-reinforcing impact of neoliberalism
Using authoritarianism and violence as a way to instill neoliberal “reforms”
Holding on to cognitive dissonance
Whether this means enacting policies as preventative measures or identifying their impact so people can see their hidden purpose, we cannot allow these tools to continue the expansion of neoliberalism.
Action 4: To adopt “radical transparency” throughout our governmental institutions. Adbusters calls for us to “usher in a new era of radical transparency, to add the right to live in a transparent world as a new human right in the constitution of nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
As noted earlier in this post, most people are very resistant to neoliberal policies and programs; however, through the “Shock Doctrine” and other means of using confusion/fear, neoliberals push through their ideas without even people realizing.
If we had this “radical transparency” it would be much more difficult for neoliberals to institute their anti-democratic ideology.
Action 5: To fight off neoliberalism’s completely individualistic mentality by reinstating the idea of “the commons.” On the Commons notes this is the idea of sharing resources (e.g. natural resources like water and forests or things like the internet) “in a sustainable and equitable way.”
It’s definitely a shift in thinking to consider “what can we do”, instead of “what can I do?” However, there are plenty of legal frameworks for making this transition easier and acceptable to an array of folks.
The commons framework is just one way we can push back again hyper-individualist narratives and create one that shows how much better our economies would be if we shared resources instead of competing.
Resist at multiple levels
Action 6: Neoliberalism has seeped into nearly every type of organization (e.g. government, business, nonprofit, and community groups) so each of us has the challenge/opportunity to disrupt its growth.
While I don’t believe individual resistance will be enough, its definitely a piece of the solution and we have to keep the spark burning until that “movement moment” arises.
Action 7: We must sustain multiple “movement moments.” Just like there isn’t one solution, its going to take more than 1-2 movements.
Latin America’s inspiring movements against neoliberalism and Occupy Wall Street are certainly fundamental efforts in this cause, but it’s going to take long-term opposition in order to seriously challenge our dominant institutions.
Action 8: Remember all our movements need to build on and mutually support each other.
Whether we’re calling for indigenous sovereignty or racial justice, we have to seek out ways to create intersectional movements.
Action 9: When I feel confronted by the enormity of our neoliberal structures, I turn to those who continually show me new ways to maintain the struggle.
Just to mention a few, I look to Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, Zapatistas and other landless/indigenous groups (e.g. Ogoni people in Nigeria and the Landless Rural Unemployed Workers Movement [MST] in Brazil).
Create a new, positive economic paradigm
Action 10: Adbusters notes that “people have been persuaded…that there is no alternative to neoliberalism…Neoliberalism may not have succeeded in making itself more attractive than other systems, but it has sold itself as the only “realistic” mode of governance.”
Adbusters reminded that even though neoliberal policies created the 2008 financial crisis, few people saw feasible options beyond neoliberalism. We have some powerful ideas, but they aren’t dominant to be widely championed at this point.
Action 11: As implied by the last point, we need a cohesive alternative economic development model to fundamentally challenge the neoliberal ideology.
For example, the New Deal framework of the early 20th century showed how government should serve as a positive role in the economy and should be based on our positive values.
While government may not be perfect in every scenario, the potential for making a system based on thoughtful values (e.g. transparency and mutual support) is much higher than neoliberalism which is based on destructive values (e.g. consumption, greed, every person for themselves).
Where to go from here?
As you probably already know, neoliberalism is not something one or a group of people will ever be able to change on their own. I laid out a few of the ideas that seem to have some of the highest chances for making a dent in the neoliberal culture, but you have to identify exactly how you wish to combat it.
There’s no “one way” so that means applying these and other counter actions to your activist routines and finding ways to integrate them into your current or future campaigns.
I know it’s going to be terribly challenging to keep up this struggle that has been going on for decades, but we must learn from those who organized before us and to build on their efforts.
Just remember that countless people are currently pushing back against neoliberalism and we just have to keep on pushing to finally dismantle the neoliberal ideology.
In order to make this an even more “complete” guide to dismantling neoliberalism, please leave a comment below with your ideas for additional actions or things all of us should know.
A few weeks ago Heath Mitchell asked to co-write 42 Errors Changemakers and Humanitarians Make (which ended up being one of the most popular posts here), and now he got me thinking again by asking about the people/organizations that have influenced my ideas of activism and organizing.
Anytime someone asks me to write a post on a certain topic I try my best to do so, even if it takes a few months! I’m especially stoked when I get to write about those folks who’ve fundamentally impacted my life through their own words/actions.
The names that follow are a few of the main individuals and groups who I consistently learn from and wish to share more about.
Author of De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century and 500 years of Chicano History,Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez has been called one of the 20th century’s most important activists and progressive historians.
When I read De Colores Means All of Us I thought it had some of the most insightful strategies for social change that we still have not adopted some 15 years later.
So if you’re looking for a clear picture of 20th century progressive activism and unrealized pathways for change, then check out Betita’s work.
Marshall Ganz/Sierra Club
One of my first direct experiences with organizing training was with with the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), an organization that grew out of the Sierra Club. Much of the SSC’s trainers were based on Marshall Ganz’s frameworks and research for the Sierra Club.
Marshall Ganz was a volunteer with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, served with the United Farm Workers, created the dominant curriculum for training Obama’s campaign organizers, and now is working to develop the Leading Change Network (LCN).
Yuri Kochiyama is one of the most intersectional activists to grace the changemaking world and doesn’t appear to be showing any signs of slowing down. She’s organized around the rights of political prisoners, Puerto Rican Independence, and reparations for Japanese Americans forcibly held in internment camps during WWII.
Not only did Yuri Kochiyama show me how to integrate a range of activist efforts, but she also demonstrated that one can begin to organize at any age and while taking care of family.
Naomi Klein’s journalist and activist endeavors serve as a beating heart of the opposition to neoliberalism in all of its forms.
Her book The Shock Doctrine fundamentally altered my understanding of just how pervasive neoliberalism had become in all parts of our society (e.g. education, government, and international relations).
I’m currently working on a post inspired by much of Naomi Klein’s work that focuses on neoliberalism frames, ideas, and policies along with ways activists can combat this entrenched ideology.
I’ve mentioned Ella Baker a few times before, in particular about her contributions to leadership development in any type of organizing.
Ella Baker throughout the civil rights movement (e.g. through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) continually pushed for increasing opportunities for multiple leaders and criticizing those that were held up as the only focal points for action.
Now the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is making sure to honor her legacy and contributions, and remind us to look to Ella for ideas on how to build up strong cohesive leadership systems.
Bill McKibben and 350.org
Bill McKibben and the rest of the 350.org team constantly mobilize some of the largest and most impactful demonstrations for taking action against climate change and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
When the issue of climate change keeps getting pushed back to the edges of the news, 350.org and its partners keep finding ways to refocus attention.
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
Right now the absence of ACORN’s local-regional-national organizing structure leaves a void that is hard to fill. How many other organizations could bring together so many hundreds of thousands of people to bring forward constructive anti-poverty solutions? Or really any issue?
I recently read John Atlas’s book about ACORN called Seeds of Change and if you’re looking to find out more about how ACORN operated, that book is a great place to start.
Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta
The founders of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta showed how to develop new leaders by going door-to-door and being persistent.
Dolores Huerta exemplified this attitude that every person had important contribution to make when she said “Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk.”
INCITE! is a “is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing.”
One of their most well-known and influential publication is the The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.