Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Social Media and the Internet as a Powerful Organizing Tool – Part 1

Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Social Media and the Internet as a Powerful Organizing Tool – Part 1

This is David Harvey and you’re
listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at
capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at
Work. Okay, today on the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles I’m doing something a bit
different. I decided it would be a good idea to have a guest.
My guest is Chris Caruso and I think he’s feeling very happy these days
because last week he defended successfully his doctoral dissertation.
But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because Chris has worked with
dispossessed and fathered anti-poverty movements over the last 30 years and
I think is a rather unique resource to talk about those movements, and in
particular, to talk about the way in which many of those movements are
misunderstood and underappreciated for their capacities and
their powers. So Chris, talk a little bit about how you got into working with
poor people’s movements. [CARUSO] Thank you so much for having me on your podcast, Prof. Harvey. So, I I went to college in Philadelphia in the second half of
the 80s, and at a time when it was before the latest round to gentrification in
Philadelphia had happened. You know, I I met both people who were
destitute, poor; living, sleeping rough on the streets, as well as
fabulously wealthy students at the University of Pennsylvania where I went.
And it was the first time that I had met people on kind of opposite ends of the
income and wealth scale. It immediately…all kinds of
questions started to arise in my mind from this contrast, and at the
time it was kind of “high tide” of activity of the National Union of the
Homeless that were homeless people that had been organizing themselves into
unions in over 30 cities around the country. They were doing
very militant work identifying abandoned HUD housing and urban development owned houses, and organizing families to rip the boards off and move families into
these homes. They had actually won a concession from the Chairman of HUD at
the time, Jack Kemp, after the big Housing Now March who agreed to give 10% of the
federal owned housing stock to the homeless but didn’t agree to any
particular mechanism and as to how that would be distributed. So organized
poor people and homeless people took that distribution mechanism into their
own hands by taking over houses, and then they would appeal for Section 8
housing vouchers and basically ask HUD to make good on this 10% pledge.
But there was a wave of these militant housing takeover a movement that was
happening across the country at the time and Philadelphia was their national
headquarters. So I literally met some of the folks from the Union the Homeless
on my very first day of college and kind of never looked back. [HARVEY] And in getting together with them, I mean, did you start to work with students? Are we working
with them? How did that bridge get crossed? [CARUSO] I first started to do student organizing and there was this National Conference – an annual
conference called the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness –
that I was involved with and quickly saw the limits of this kind of do-gooder-ism
kind of charity work that had a kind of social justice language to it, but
ultimately, by being just students alone was really limited . So
when we hosted this annual conference in Philly, we basically
initiated partnering with grassroots organizations of the organized poor, including the Philadelphia-Delaware Valley Union of
the Homeless, the national Union of the Homeless, as well as the welfare rights
unions, and basically put forward an idea that students should
partner with existing organizations of organized poor and homeless people if they wanted to address these issues. They should address – they should get
together with the people who were the real experts on these issues, and people
that are actually living them every day – and follow their lead in terms
of organizing strategies and tactics. [HARVEY] But one of the arenas in which
you’ve been pioneer has been by bringing in Internet capacities and
IT skills and things of that sort into the terrain of these movements. I think that has is a very special part of your stories. Talk a
little bit about how that meshing between this interest in the poor
people’s movements and relating to them and the IT skills which you were working
with came together. [CARUSO] Yeah. So I had come from a hacking background. I had come out of the kind of- [HARVEY] Hacking sometimes has this incredible negativity. [CARUSO] Right, well in this sense this was in the very early age of, really before the
the World Wide Web, but with the early days of the internet when it was still
mostly ARPANET, and you could connect with a 300 baud modem. Which
was so slow you would watch the text spell out each word across your screen.
But I was very much involved with the early days of the kind of
telecommunications revolution and basically taught myself Unix by
surreptitiously exploring other people’s computers online. I was kind
of a self-taught programmer and been very involved with this kind of
hacking subculture. And there was a couple of experiences, with the media in
particular, and the way in which both the Union of the Homeless and the
Welfare Rights Union would do these very public kind of spectacles,
that they would be what they would call
“projects of survival” things that would meet immediate needs, but also things
that would dramatize their plight. And the reality of millions and
millions of poor and homeless people living in the United States that likes
to suppress this. And so, two stories along those lines that
really compelled me to get involved: one was that I was classmates with
Stephen Glass who went on to have this big scandal. He was this noted, fabulous
reporter who was eventually uncovered as to making up his stories out of whole
cloth. As a student, he was also doing this, and he wrote a story – a big
cover story for the summer student paper – called ‘The day in the life of a homeless.’
And it was really just stringing together a bunch of,
in my point of view, racist and sexist stereotypes; racist and classist and
sexist stereotypes about homeless people. How they act, why they’re homeless…and he basically put his words into the mouths of some local homeless people that would
hang out near Penn’s campus. So I went out and I talked to those guys, and I
said, “does this guy Steven spend 24 hours on the
streets with you?” And they’re like, “we’ve never heard of this guy.” So I
actually confronted him with the Editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian in their
offices and I said, “look, this is false. You made this up.” And
he wouldn’t fess up to it. It took The New Republic, I believe, was the
publication that finally busted him another seven years before he was found
out. But it struck me as just how easily negative stereotypes
about poor people can be transmitted via the press with no ill
consequences. And secondly, the big papers in Philadelphia where
the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. They announced a new editorial policy with a lead editorial called “homeless hype.” And they
said, “yes, Kensington is the poorest neighborhood in the whole state
of Pennsylvania,” bu the concluding line of the editorial was “what the people of Kensington really need is some peace and quiet.” And
that these noisy and unruly protesters who are trying to make a
spectacle out of this issue of homelessness are really doing a
disservice to their neighbors. And in fact, this homeless hype editorial
marked an editorial policy by the paper. We demanded and got a meeting
with the editorial staff and they said “look, you could do whatever you want. You
could yell and scream you could make a big fit out on the street. You
will not get in our papers. We don’t care what you do, we’re just not covering you
anymore.” And his was a shock. I was very naive about the free press and free speech, and this was at a time when the
Welfare Rights Union was not receiving any foundation money, it was totally
dependent on what they declared a “tent city” on 5th and Lehigh
in North Philadelphia. It got in the paper, and people would come and they
would bring food and water and ice and the fact that they would get some attention in the local paper would activate some kind of local volunteer
networks that would physically support the survival of these families,
doing these efforts. And the Enquirer just said, “No. None. You won’t get
any attention from us.” So we pursued, at that time, a very aggressive internet
strategy before any other grassroots groups had done it. And we created a website. We created a listserv. I started training
poor and homeless people how to code HTML, how to edit digital video, and we
developed an in-house capacity with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union to begin
to tell our own stories and cover our own struggles. And that helped
launch this group from a neighborhood organization to a citywide, and then a
statewide, and eventually they had a voice during 1996’s welfare
reform. They were one of the only organized grouping of poor people that
got to officially testify to Congress about the likely impacts of
welfare reform. And they got, eventually, a national/international platform in part because of this early and very aggressive
internet strategy. After that I founded a nonprofit called Human Rights
Tech and I traveled around the country and world training other grassroots
anti-poverty organizations how to use the Internet as an organizing tool. [HARVEY] Talk
about some of those organizations that you worked with. Some of them
have extremely interesting histories, I noticed. Just last week there was a
an article in The New York Times about the local aid workers, which is one of
the groups he’s worked with, and they still seem to be making a lot of
noise. In this case, the boycott of Wendy’s on student campuses, on university campuses. [CARUSO] They’re an incredible group of self-organized farmworkers in southwest
Florida called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). And we were
really the first- my wife and I – were the first people from outside
their community to go down there. And they had been organizing along
more traditional lines and actually organized a general strike
against the growers. But it turned out that these very large
landowners – these kind of land Baron’s in Florida – they don’t really have a
public image to protect. If people said “they’re
greedy” and “they treat people awful,” it didn’t really matter to them. So although they did this very militant and brave organizing, including this
general strike, it didn’t have much of an impact. So we were doing some
research and it was revealed it was it was let’s slip in an
agricultural trade Journal. At that time Taco Bell was our single
largest producer of the tomatoes that they picked in Immokalee. So this
gave rise to an idea that, upon doing further research, we found out that
Taco Bell spent over $220 million dollars a year on an advertising budget that was
entirely focused on 18-24 year old “HFF use” – that’s what it was called in
their internal papers – which stood for “Heavy Fast Food users.” So, this was early 90s, and the internet was not universal as
it is today, but it immediately occurred to us: 18-24 year olds are
on college campuses and they are interneted. So based on
some of the experience with the Homeless Union and with the welfare rights work
in Philadelphia, we did a a very aggressive
internet strategy where we trained farmworker activists to develop
their own webpages, to do digital video editing, to do their own storytelling, and they did the series of interneted bus
tours, where they’ve filled the bus with farmworker activists, and went to
different college campuses. They also helped create a whole online
resources for…if you were on a college campus and you wanted to take up this
boycott Taco Bell campaign, all the tools would be available for you to download. The signs, the slogans, organizing guide, the sign-up sheets,
everything was there for you to just download. So in many cases,
you know, the CIW folks would go and they would either give lectures
or they would do a kind of popular theater to dramatize their situation. They had literally got paid on a piece rate that hadn’t changed
in over a generation, and grueling, literally back-breaking
labor, and these students would get excited by hearing directly
from farmworkers. Then they would follow up with these online tools. Tn
some cases the CIW would get an email or a phone call from a student
on a campus they never visited, and said “well, I heard about it from my friend
that was at this other campus, and I downloaded all these online
tools, I got together with my friends and we organized a boycott of Taco Bell, and
we’ve kicked them out of our campus.” And they had never met. And this was
one of the things that really struck me with how powerful the potential
of these kind of viral campaigns were. [HARVEY] Right, and what happened in the Taco Bell case? [CARUSO] Well, I mean it’s a really striking victory that I think has not
talked about enough. That they, not just with Taco Bell, but with a whole
series of fast-food companies, got them to take responsibility for the labor
conditions in their supply chains. So, the demand was to pay a penny
more a pound per bucket of tomatoes that was picked, and to guarantee that that
penny be transferred on to the workers themselves, and of course
the farm workers don’t work for Taco Bell or Wendy’s, right? They work for
these local kind of day laborer labor contracts and labor contractors. But this was a really precedent-setting victory in that these companies were were forced to
take responsibility for the labor conditions and the pay further down in
this subcontracted supply chain. And part of the pressure upon them was
that the the CIW independently uncovered, as of today, it’s now
6 different modern day slavery rings operating in the US south where,
literally, people were chained inside of box trucks at night. There was
labor discipline by you know AK-47 here in the United States in the agricultural
fields. And they literally were saying to Taco Bell, “how
can you guarantee that slaves didn’t pick the tomatoes that are in your
chalupas?” And they couldn’t guarantee that, and so they
agreed to this Code of Conduct. This kind of industry-wide Code of Conduct that
now many fast food chains, as well as now many grocery stores, have
agreed to and have adhered to. And it’s not only almost doubled farmworker
wages for the first time in literally 30 years, but it’s radically changed
the labor conditions in the fields. And their ability to file
grievances about abuse or sexual harassment or not being allowed bathroom
breaks or water is much greater today than it was before they started organizing. [HARVEY] One of the things you’ve helped me
understand much better is the capacities and powers of some of these movements.
The tendency to think that poor people don’t have the skills and the
capacities to do things, and it needs sort of do-gooder outside organizers to
come in and organize them so that they get a better life…but much of your
work suggests that that’s a very false imaginary, and in fact potentially very
damaging to the movements themselves. Can you talk a little bit more about that
because I think this is a very, very significant point. [CARUSO] Yeah, and I think it’s a very important point ,from all of these
various organizations that I’ve worked with, is that in the United
States we we imbibe this heavy amount of propaganda, especially about this
idea that there’s something called a meritocracy, right? If you work hard and you have the right skills, then you’re gonna succeed. And if you
haven’t succeeded, then it’s your fault as an individual. And partly, if we acknowledge that there are really structural
reasons for the increased poverty and inequality in the United States – which I
think your work speaks to quite powerfully – we also have to acknowledge
that these ideas of meritocracy are part of this ideological superstructure
that justifies this inequality. And in fact, there is real genius on
the streets of the United States that people who have to hustle and struggle
and work many part-time jobs, and have to put together side hustles,
and have to figure out ways to support extended families like these, are people
who work very hard, who are very resourceful, although resourceless. And
in fact, when people are put in a situation where they have to
fight for them and their families’ survival, and that the state has made
their survival illegal, right? That for them to do the things they need to do to
survive, they’re gonna have to come in conflict with the police, they’re gonna
have the Health and Human Services threaten to snatch their kids
away for being vocal and being organizers, that my experience –
the experience of these organizations – has shown that there is literal
genius among the ranks of poor and homeless in the United States. And that
they have come up with – time and time again, which is what I tried to
document in my dissertation – very creative and innovative organizing
strategies and tactics to find real policy solutions for the
problems that face them. I think that too often people discount those
at the bottom. You know, they are dismissed as the lumpen proletariat or “these folks that you can’t do much about,” right? And I think that unfortunately, a lot of
otherwise well-meaning academic literature kind of reinforces those kind
of harmful stereotypes. And I think that if folks would take the time to get to know or even read about some of these incredible
victories like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or the Michigan Welfare Rights Union that blew the whistle on this
horrible combination of water privatization and this emergency manager
system in Michigan – that if folks had heated their call, we could have
avoided this mass poisoning that happened in Flint, Michigan –
they developed a citywide water affordability policy that could
literally solve the water filter affordability crisis in Michigan. It’s been
actually implemented by the Detroit City Council, but they have basically –
I mean it’s been passed by the Detroit City Council but they’ve slow-walked the
implementation of it. So, I mean, I think that we really have to look at the fact that not just the reality of the poor in the United States
is blacked out of our media in terms of the suffering and deprivation of the
140 million people that live below the Census Bureau’s
supplemental poverty line, that not just the plight but also the fight in
terms of the struggle, the self-organization and the insight in
terms of the original analysis strategies and thinking that are coming
from the bottom, are things that I think really need more attention. [HARVEY] But there’s an extensive literature in the academic world and elsewhere which is about how
to understand poor people’s movements and how to organize the poor, and so on,
but you found yourself very much at odds with that, right? What would you say to them? And say to us who reads that literature – and
it has a certain credibility. [CARUSO] Yes, well, this weekend we celebrated the life of Beulah Sanders who was a leader of the Welfare Rights movement
here in New York City. And New York actually recently acknowledged
her by renaming a street in Harlem after her. She was a poor black woman, no
formal education who rose to be one of the… rose to be the the
leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization. And Welfare
Rights followed what they called the Johnnie Tillmon model of organizing. Johnnie
Tillmon was a poor black woman who grew up in the south, later was organizing in
California. The Johnnie Tillmon models stated that we want to take the
people that are most directly affected by an issue, we want to give them the
training and tools that they need and put them in the leadership of the
position, right? The idea is that those who are in pain know when
their pain is relieved, right? And that this Johnnie Tillmon model was at odds
with a different kind of organizing model, which is more in the tradition of
Saul Alinsky, and is more in the tradition of the kind of US labor
movement and their model of organizing. And I think when you look at
something, a text that has become canonical, like Frances Fox Piven and
Richard Cloward’s poor people’s movements, they have a very normative
version of what organizing for people should be, right? [HARVEY] And they’re pretty paternalistic. [CARUSO] Yeah, I would say it is paternalistic, right? And that there’s
this idea that you should have these paid professional organizers out
of the college campuses, they’re the ones with the skills, they have the
hustle, they could really get things done… and too often the actual poor
people are left to kind of give testimonials and tell their sad story,
but then it’s someone else’s job to explain the significance. To explain the
strategies, to explain how we get out of this situation. And, you know, it is a paternalistic kind of model. And Piven’s argument was
that if they could just…if Welfare Rights focused 100%
of their time and resources on flooding the welfare rolls, on just signing new
people up for welfare, it would somehow crash the system, and it would force people to understand how great of a problem poverty is in
the United States, and they would do something even more generous. Which of
course, never happened. But the the price of pursuing that strategy meant that if
you were gonna put any resources towards leadership development for your own
members to help your existing members get through the crisis of their day – so
that they could become leaders in this work – that any effort towards ongoing political education or the building of permanent organizations to
build power for the poor, was anathema to the Piven view. That we just need to, you
know…the poor are to be mobilized. They’re to be mobilized to be a
disruptive force in society, but they’re not there to do the thinking, to do the
analysis, or to give the leadership. And I think it is a paternalistic model,
and I think it’s high time that we begin to start to question some of this kind
of received wisdom of how organizing poor people gets done. And
I think in many of these cases there were these were real fights that
happened within the organization, right? And if you look at the leadership of these poor black women like Mary Ann Kramer in Detroit, like Johnnie
Tillmon, like Beulah Sanders, like Dottie Stevens in Massachusetts, many, many
others; they fought against this position of Pivens. And they said,
“look, we are following this Johnny Tillman model.” But Piven had the
access to academic publishing, she had the degrees, she had the
kind of intellectual capital to be able to say “here’s the definitive story”
without ever revealing that there’s another side of this story, and
that we should be giving you know these poor black women leaders – who were on the front lines of welfare rights for decades – a voice in telling that story of
how to organize the poor. [HARVEY] I mean this helped me understand when I was in
Baltimore I was participating some in the living wage movement which was
organized by an Alinsky organization. And we got some things done. Baltimore was the first city to actually have an ordinance about living
wage, so some things were produced. But I always felt uncomfortable with this
version that somehow, rather, while the rhetoric was about training people to
work for themselves, it seemed that the people who were training never went away.
They stayed there forever. And, in fact, there was something not quite
right about it, but it wasn’t totally ineffective. [CARUSO] Yeah, I mean an interesting other example that was happening in Baltimore around the
same time was this welfare rights leader by the name of Annie Chambers who was an incredible organizer. Deeply, deeply, deeply rooted in the
community. She funded her organizing by selling those frozen push-up pops you
put in your freezer. And her children – she had many – would go door-to-door
and sell these push-up pops which funded welfare rights. And at the time when
welfare reform was happening she invited the governor – you know, the governor was
saying “we need more austerity” and all of this “welfare queens”
kind of racist and sexist rhetoric – and she challenged him. She invited
him to come have dinner with a poor family in Baltimore.
To his credit, he did, and he showed up, and all of the cameras showed
up, and they have a cordial debate about policy over dinner, and then
he gets up and gives this very paternalizing thing of “well these, folks, it’s very simple, but they live with dignity…” and blah, blah,
blah, and “this just proves that I could make these cuts” and blah, blah, blah. So she then returns from the kitchen with a tray of open dog
food containers that she had used to make the meatloaf that the governor had
just eaten with her. And she had said “Governor, this is what we have to do
to stretch a dollar in order to feed our families. This is this is our reality, this is our lived reality, and now you’ve enjoyed
that, too.” And his handlers immediately got him the heck
out of there because he didn’t know what to say. But I think that is a
very creative and direct and militant style of organizing that hasn’t
gotten into these histories. [HARVEY] One last quick question. I can’t imagine
that you encountered Marx at the University of Pennsylvania. Where did you
first come in contact with Marx. [CARUSO] Yeah, so I was a philosophy undergraduate at the
University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, and I was never assigned a single
page of Marx in four years, as an undergrad. The first time someone handed
me a copy of the Marx-Engels reader it was a a poor homeless Black Muslim youth
living in a takeover house that I as a student was doing like support for. I was
bringing food, bringing water, bringing ice to the house that his
family had taken over with the the homeless. And he handed
me this copy of the Marx-Engles reader with a beautiful inscription about having to understand the root causes of the things we were fighting,
and that was how I got turned onto Marx, and a more structural
analysis of all of these problems I was facing. [HARVEY] Okay, well, let’s leave it there, and
we will take up that question next time. Thank you, thank you for joining me today.
You’ve been listening to David Harvey’s Anti-Capitalist Chronicles a Democracy
at Work Production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for
supporting this project.

15 thoughts on “Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Social Media and the Internet as a Powerful Organizing Tool – Part 1

  1. Unusual to see Prof. Harvey as the interviewer. I'm happy with any and all content, but I would much prefer David do the talking.

  2. This was very illuminating, and I don't mean it because your heads were really shiny from misplaced lighting throughout the video. 🙂

  3. So we seize the opportunity to tell the truth. There is no fair trade with China Just take a simple example: Chinese can buy land in France and America but foreigners can't buy land in China. Reciprocity is the basic principles in any trade relations. China is a snake that plays victim and innocent but they are the less open market in the world. They never let you win. It's a loose trade with China as long as there is no reciprocity. Do not get fooled, it's a dictatorship with a lifetime emperor Xi Jinping. Youtube and foreign social media's are blocked in China. You need a VPN. They don't like people to uncover the true nature of their regime. That's why they use bots and fake accounts to post pro Chinese comments and insults people who are against their regime. Communism kills more people than Nazism. They keep blaming America but send their children in American school. The daughter of the President (emperor) of China studies at Harvard. Never believe what communist say but they do. Before praising China, ask yourself about the massacre of students at Tiananmen square and the 70 milliions people killed during the cultural Revolution of Mao, do you want to commit with these criminals ? Most people are ignorant so we are here to unveil the truth the ministry of propaganda doesn't want you to know and erased from schools' textbooks. Be warned China is not our friend as long as it is an abusive dictatorship.

  4. Support Anti-Capitalist Chronicles on Patreon! Your support helps us compensate the workers that put an episode together:

  5. the only obstacle to progress in social media is the matter of the ownership – overcoming it starts more human oriented civilization

  6. I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it's humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other.

    Eduardo Galeano

  7. Those in power just don't want anybody especially the poor to do for themselves. They want us all to be dependent on them. We are learning we don't need them, , we don't want to be robots. And they are afraid because they will become unnecessary!

  8. Very inspiring. I admire those people that go ahead and make a change in the real life and improve our societies.
    I wish I had the courage.

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