Envisioning a 21st-Century Worker-Centered Social Compact

On June 2-3, 2022, my colleagues at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor will host the next installment in a series of convenings, webinars, and discussions we inaugurated in April 2021, inviting a wide range of discussants—activists, academics, and working people alike—into a dialogue about something much grander than we could possibly win in the immediate political battles and union struggles that are now unfolding around us.  We invited them to think together about a much bigger project: the construction of a 21st century social compact that centers the needs, concerns, and aspirations of working people.   

The June gathering, titled, “The Pandemic Worker Wave and a New Social Compact,” invites participants to consider how the rolling wave of worker activism that has been building over the past year has made clear the need for a thorough reconstruction of the limited, exclusive social compact that was constructed in the middle third of the twentieth century, eroded badly by the century’s end, and is now in tatters.  It will look at how recent worker agitation—ranging from union organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks, to an uptick in strikes, and an extraordinary degree of labor market turbulence called the “Great Resignation”—calls for a broad set of policies to de-toxify our economy and politics and empower working people.  

This convening builds on an inaugural conference that drew 120 presenters from around the world last April, where we began envisioning an inclusive 21st century social compact to address workers’ needs for jobs, housing, education, childcare, income support, and other necessary elements of sufficiency while simultaneously expanding democracy, which is currently under assault from the growing forces of concentrated wealth and political power.  We followed up with a series of webinars and discussions over the past year focusing on a wide range of issues including just cause employment, the nation’s deepening housing crisis and the role of finance-driven gentrification, the threats and opportunities posed by the rise of artificial intelligence, models of just transition toward a socially and environmentally sustainable economy, and the role of networks in combatting global inequality.  Steering this developing conversation is a remarkably diverse organizing and advisory committee that includes more than 40 representatives from unions, think tanks, faith communities, academia, and advocacy organizations.

Why have these people come together to promote a visionary conversation about a new social order that centers workers’ needs at a moment when even the more modest vision of Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” program has been stymied; when Democrats risk losing control of the House of Representatives; when apologists for white supremacy, insurrection, authoritarianism, and illiberalism are gaining increasing influence in our politics and culture; when workers are struggling to simply win the right to negotiate with powerful employers like Starbucks and Amazon?  The answer is simple: because they know that without a compelling and plausible vision of the future around which to organize and rally, the powerless stand little chance before the forces of entrenched power.

Moments of vast historical transformation, like the one we are currently experiencing, can unleash discontents that may be harnessed for good or ill. That we have entered such a turbulent moment seems increasingly clear. While insurrectionary Trumpism might be the most malevolent symptoms of this moment, it was not its cause. That lies deeper. Whether we are experiencing the decline and fall of the neoliberal order as historian Gary Gerstle’s recent book suggests, the destruction of liberalism altogether as conservative intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen pray in their substack, the Post-Liberal Order, or the inevitably painful birth pangs of a truly multiracial democracy as Heather McGhee hopes in her book, The Sum of Us, the disruptions are clear. We are living through a turbulent transition whose roots date back decades to liberalism’s failure to put in place durable policies to counter structural inequities and protect workers and our nascent, never fully realized democracy from capitalism’s relentless concentration of wealth and power.  The question we now face is whether the decomposition of the liberal/neoliberal order will lead to the birth of something fairer, more egalitarian, and more socially and ecologically sustainable, as McGhee hopes, or whether it will yield something more illiberal, authoritarian, and anti-democratic in which, as William Butler Yeats put it in 1919 (another transitional moment marked by social upheaval and pandemic), “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

At such transitional moments, imagining a better world is not an escapist indulgence for the intellectual class. It is a political necessity. Consider the great transformation of the late nineteenth century that saw industrial capitalism complete its rise to dominance.  As industrialism spawned its own “mere anarchy,” capitalism’s excesses and inequities called forth not only pragmatic working-class movements, but utopian dreamers like American Edward Bellamy and Englishman William Morris.  Their respective utopian novels, Looking Backward: 2000-1887(1888) and News from Nowhere (1890), stirred the imaginations of workers and their allies on the eve of the deep economic crisis of the 1890s by sketching out visions of a future in which capitalism’s ravages had been replaced.  Bellamy’s novel of a socialist future in which automation had eliminated danger and drudgery from work created a sensation in its time, spawning hundreds of “Nationalist Clubs” whose members were enthralled by Bellamy’s vision.  That book, and Bellamy’s vision inspired many a working-class activist, such as the teen-aged Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.  It also encouraged other dreamers, like William Morris, to sketch their own visions.  Morris wrote News from Nowhere to contest what he saw as Bellamy’s technocratic reliance on technology as humanity’s ultimate liberator.  Bellamy’s “only idea for making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery,” Morris complained.  In contrast, Morris envisioned a future in which work was craft and its products more like art.

Nor was Morris the only dreamer inspired by Bellamy to sketch out a utopian blueprint of a more humane future.  A flood of utopian books poured forth in the decade after Looking Backward’s publication.  The imaginative energy unleashed by that torrent of writing and thinking contributed mightily to shaping what Toby Higbie calls the “social history of the working-class mind.”  By helping people envision what might be, these acts of imagination helped galvanize the forces that would, over the following decades, pound the double-edged sword of nineteenth-century individualistic liberalism and laissez-faire politics into the ploughshares of social democracy and New Deal liberalism.  

But the political and policy implements forged through that struggle, it is now obvious, never delivered equitable bounties, and their utility has been lost as financialization, globalization, and the erosion of democracy made capitalism less governable.  The time has come to begin forging new implements from the broken and rusted ploughshares we have inherited, tools that will be adequate to our needs in this century.  That must be the work of many hands and the product of many minds attuned to the needs of today’s working people.  Even as we join the urgently immediate fights of this turbulent time, we must also take time to imagine together the better world that we hope to create. Join us June 2-3 as we envision a new social compact!

Joseph A. McCartin, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

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