“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” –MLK, speaking against the Vietnam War in 1967
By Jim Miller
It’s the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and we will be greeted, as is the case these days, with lots of empty gestures and vanilla rhetoric that erases the radical nature of King’s legacy and neuters the impact of his ideas. As I have noted in years past, King was not a moderate whose only idea was that we should all just get along and respect each other. He was a provocative thinker and activist who challenged the core values of our society both then and now.
King fought what he characterized as “the triple evils of racism, materialism, and militarism,” sought to restructure “an edifice which produces beggars,” and called for us to move forward with a “divine dissatisfaction . . . until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”
He believed that the “whole structure must be changed” for America to be reborn as a truly humane, egalitarian, and civilized society. Only then would we have “democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action.”
As I pointed out in an earlier column:
What King’s legacy challenges us to do today is think beyond the neoliberal economic dogma that asserts that the market can solve all problems. If there is a radicalism afoot today, it is these ideas—that all public institutions are suspect, that taxes are inherently evil, and that business models and yet more privatization can solve everything from how to educate our children to how to treat patients in the hospital. If we are afraid to say this, we may as well pack up and go home. As long as the game is played on neoliberal turf, ordinary folks will lose. Our standard of living will continue to decline, the gap between the rich and the poor will grow, and our politics will become less and less democratic as corporate money floods into the pockets of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. The road we are currently on leads to a dead-end. Thinking that we can outwit the right by repositioning ourselves on their playing field is a fool’s errand.
Thus any economic program that deserves our attention needs to start with an overt critique of free market fundamentalism. In opposition to this Social Darwinist dogma, we must insist that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Indeed, almost all of our current economic, social, environmental, and international problems have to do with the unchecked excesses of the free market system. In the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, Americans clamored for more government to help protect them from the excesses of the marketplace and the unregulated power of big business. We have forgotten this history at our peril.
Along those lines, economist Richard Wolff recently observed of the much touted economic “recovery” that:
[T]he mass of lower- and middle-income folks basically have watched a “recovery” that bypassed the vast majority of the American people. A reasonable person wouldn’t call that a recovery, or at least would hedge it about with qualifying adjectives to talk honestly.
The median income of an American family—which means 50 percent earned more, 50 percent earned less—is about 9 percent lower today than before this crisis hit in 2007. That doesn’t mark a recovery.
In fact, the line downward is pretty straight down—a deterioration that has really affected the lives and daily existence of the vast majority of Americans. So there really is no recovery and there is no mystery why what you see in the press is not affecting how masses of people are looking at these elections.
For example, the unemployment decline—much of what is the core of these stories—has more to do with people leaving the labor force, giving up on looking for work, so they’re no longer counted as unemployed, rather than finding jobs.
And for the few that have found jobs, one statistic screams out its importance: Two-thirds of those who found jobs during this crisis found jobs paying significantly less than they were earning before the crisis, and having typically fewer benefits. So anyway you scratch it, this recovery is only that of a tiny minority at the top, and therefore should surprise no one if the mass of people are not happy.
Wolff, in the same interview with Counterspin goes on to note that a big part of our problem is that far fewer people are asking the kinds of questions that Dr. King asked about the American economy:
And I think, unfortunately, even though the Cold War is long behind us, its legacy is the failure of leading academics and journalists to throw into question the system, which given its performance now—this terrible crisis, the second in 75 years—is something that’s long overdue, to have an honest discussion about whether we can’t do better, and what the strengths and weaknesses are.
But, in order to think about how we can do better, we have to overcome our present failure of imagination. We need to shatter the taken for granted ideology that confuses market fundamentalism and our current intellectually and morally bankrupt political landscape as unchangeable “reality.”
We also need to overcome our hesitance to fearlessly speak truth to power and, in the spirit of King, challenge the edifice which creates beggars, stop attacking workers’ rights at every turn, rethink our addiction to militarism, face the fact that we have not overcome our racist history, and imagine that the larger self that King calls us to embrace does not just include humans but the natural world as well. Surely, a contemporary version of what King called a “higher synthesis” of the values of individualism and community would come to see each individual as inextricably bound not just to their neighbors but to the earth which sustains civilization as well.
Indeed, King’s condemnation of the materialism and economic exploitation that is at the root of our present social ills is also the fundamental driver of the destruction of the earth. In the weeks leading up to this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. day we saw reports that our planet had its warmest year ever, that ocean levels are rising at alarming rates, that mammals and sea life are on the verge of mass extinction, that we have passed four of the nine planetary boundaries that make human civilization possible, and that, despite all this, we are still pumping record amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
In 2015 it has become abundantly clear that the same edifice that produces beggars also murders the planet. But, as Naomi Klein points out in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, the impending environmental catastrophe offers us a chance to show “that real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more stable and equitable economic system, one that strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate greed.”
King, the radical, would agree that we need to go “to the root” in order to cure what ails us as he observed, “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society . . . a little change here and a little change there, but now I feel differently. You have to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
Thus, on this annual celebration of the real Martin Luther King Jr., I suggest to you, dear reader, that there is such a thing as being “too late.” So, in the name of the love of the greater self that Martin Luther King Jr. died for, let’s go forward with a divine dissatisfaction until the whole system is restructured to serve not just the whims of the few but the needs of the many and the survival of the whole world.
We need more than ever, the fierce urgency of now.