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Economic Democracy: People Power and Cooperative Alternatives for a Sustainable Black Future

We'll know black lives matter when the capitalist system that enslaved our ancestors and is intent on disposing of our future is replaced by a new socio-economic system, based on economic democracy and self-determination.
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For many people, the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency lent credibility to the argument that the United States is moving inexorably, if slowly and in fits and starts, towards a post-racial, color-blind society that affords equal opportunity to all. However, current conditions expose a starkly different reality for the vast majority of people of African descent.

In the 1950s and 1960s through the battles for Civil Rights and Black Liberation, Black people were seen by many to embody the historic high point of American ethics and the struggle for justice. But the ensuing decades have witnessed the consistent characterization of the descendants of enslaved Africans as an unemployable burden on society and the enforcement of what author Michelle Alexander calls "the New Jim Crow," manifest in increasing criminalization, incarceration, expanding poverty, police brutality and denial of other human rights, including voting rights.

We have to ask, in the wake of the many promises and prospects following the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movement, why is this? What is the root cause of racism and national oppression in the U.S.? Why are these oppressive forces so persistent and virulent in U.S. society? What are the underlying reasons for the fact that Black people remain at the bottom of the U.S. economy? And what is the direction forward? How can the inequities created by racism be overcome? What are African-American organizations and communities doing to resist the persistence of institutional racism and structural inequality?

The story most frequently told is that African-Americans, with some exceptions, have failed to take advantage of the pathways to full economic and social inclusion: individual effort, education, perseverance and participation in electoral politics.

Reality tells a different story. For 400 years, the African people brought to the Americas as slaves and their descendants have been a necessary source of free or cheap labor, a mighty force that has been central to driving the economic development of the United States. On the slave plantations and through the semi-feudal sharecropping system of the South to labor in the mines and industries of the North, Black people have made immense, often decisive economic contributions to the development of the America. Not to mention pervasive and powerful cultural influences, many of which have also be commodified and exported throughout the world with minimal benefits for Black cultural workers and communities.

The violent enforcement of this dehumanization has been intensely fought against from slave rebellions, to urban rebellions, to prison rebellions, right down to the mass mobilizations we see today against state executions, police killings, vigilante murder, and white supremacist terrorism. For over 200 years, African Americans have fought tooth and nail to build independent institutions and organizations, and every step of the road these efforts have been met with legal and extra-legal sanction and violence.

The dominant narrative allows for some recognition of these brutal facts of history. It tends to note that despite all of this systemic repression, that Black people have attained some significant social victories over the past 200 years. Mississippi, where I reside, is an excellent case in point. Black people displayed tremendous courage and determination in this state in the 1950's and 60's to fight for their right to vote and break the power of a brutal apartheid state and social regime. But has the fact that "Mississippi now has more African-American elected officials than any other state in the country" changed the lives of the majority of Black people in Mississippi, or any other state, in any fundamental ways?

Electoral politics have repeatedly been used a pressure valve in the system, to let off social steam and allow the system to keep operating fundamentally unchanged. Electoral politics have facilitated the creation of Black middle class forces throughout the United States, but objectively has done little to improve the lives of the majority of Black people. In fact, the mass of over 5,000 African American elected officials currently holding office throughout the country have done little to stop or stem the tide of the rollback of the social gains won by African Americans in the 1950's and 60's.

Since the establishment of the United States, Black people have experienced cycles of social gains and retractions. The reforms of second reconstruction of the 1950's and 60's, removed the blatant hard edges of national oppression against African descendants in the U.S. but they did not change the structural divisions between "citizens and subjects" and the "haves and the have-nots" at the foundation of the American project. Given the tremendous economic and social changes produced by globalization and how they impact peoples historically and systematically relegated to serving as sources of cheap labor, who knows where the ongoing rollback of the equalizing measures won by Black people will lead.

This leads to the question, what can and must people of African descent do to take possession of our own lives and control our own destinies? What are we doing to combat advancing structural exclusion from the formal economy, which is intensifying our dehumanization making large sectors of our people disposable?

In Jackson, MS we are experimenting with a municipal project of social transformation that we hope can and will be a guide to other Black communities throughout the United States. Our project is based on exerting our self-determination in two primary ways:

  1. Autonomous political initiatives, which are self-organized and self-executed social projects. Autonomous in this context means initiatives not supported or organized by the government (state) or some variant of transnational monopoly capital. These types of projects range from building worker cooperatives to forming people's self-defense networks. On a basic scale these projects function typically as "serve the people" or "survival programs" that help the people to sustain themselves or acquire a degree of self-reliance. On a larger scale these projects provide enough resources and social leverage (such as flexible time to organize) to allow the people to engage in essential fight back or offensive initiatives.
  • Human Rights campaigns to apply pressure on the government and the forces of economic exploitation in society. Pressure is exerted by organizing various types of campaigns against these forces, including mass action (protest) campaigns, direct action campaigns, boycotts, non-compliance campaigns, policy shift campaigns (either advocating for or against existing laws or proposed or pending legislation), and electoral campaigns (to put favorable people in an office or to remove adversarial forces from office).
  • To date, after years of strategic planning and base building, we have won a few significant victories that demonstrate that there are viable alternatives, and that these alternatives can transform our people's lives.

    However, the core work of this initiative is directed at answering the question of what can and must we do to address the issue of economic exclusion and disposability.

    Our answer: cooperative economics. Our cooperative development work is being anchored by Cooperation Jackson. Cooperation Jackson is an emerging vehicle for sustainable community development, economic democracy, community ownership, and a just transition to a new, non-extractive economy. The broad mission of the organization is to advance the development of economic democracy in Jackson, Mississippi by building a solidarity economy anchored by a network of cooperatives and other types of worker-owned and democratically self-managed enterprises engaging in sustainable practices of production and distribution. Our work is organizing the excluded and dispossessed, collectivizing our limited resources, and together building the institutions we need to provide us with the essential goods and services we need to live with dignity and justice. We are currently working to build a live-work, sustainable eco-village in West Jackson that will house our housing, urban farming, recycling and composting, and arts and culture cooperatives.

    We have a long-road ahead of us on all levels. Solidarity economies, and economic democracy aren't built overnight. But, our work in Jackson is an example of what Black people can do with a few resources backed by a solid plan and a base to execute it. We hope that our work offers the outlines of a model of what we must do to meet the challenges of the time. It is up to us to make sure that we exert Black Control Over Black Lives and not be disposed of by a heartless, exploitative system.

    We'll know black lives matter when the capitalist system that enslaved our ancestors and is intent on disposing of our future is replaced by a new socio-economic system, based on economic democracy and self-determination.

    This post is part of the "Black Future Month" series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 28 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.

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